Atlanta’s school business managers let principals focus on education

Principal Audrey Sofianos interacts with 3rd graders at Morningside Elementary School on Friday, September 28, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Principal Audrey Sofianos interacts with 3rd graders at Morningside Elementary School on Friday, September 28, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Audrey Sofianos’ job as principal of Morningside Elementary School frequently pulled her in different directions.

Too often, she wasn’t headed toward a classroom but instead into an administrative morass of managing the day-to-day concerns of running a school.

This year, she has backup.

Atlanta Public Schools has hired 17 “school business managers” since recreating the position this spring. They handle the business side of school operations — from budgeting and purchasing to dealing with food service, transportation and facilities. Sofianos also is one of 15 Atlanta principals receiving coaching and training to boost the time they spend with teachers and students.

School Business Manager Brian Baron handles some paper works related to the parent-teacher association at the main office of Morningside Elementary School on Friday, September 28, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

icon to expand image

The efforts come as APS implements a more rigorous principal  selection process and seeks candidates who excel at instructional leadership, which research  shows is critical to a school's success. The new management model aims to free up principals to focus on what matters most.

“I’m learning more kids’ names. I’m working in small groups with kids and working side by side with teachers, which is not something I’ve been able to do in the last several years,” said Sofianos, now in her 17th year as a principal.

Principals who have time to guide teachers and strengthen instruction can dramatically influence a school. How well principals lead is a top factor in whether teachers stay or leave, and the principal’s role is second only to teachers in terms of the impact on student learning, said Jody Spiro, director of education leadership for the Wallace Foundation.

“Principals are really, really crucial for school improvement and student achievement, but that means not being a superhero. A lot of people have this image in their head of the principal being a superhero. That’s what Hollywood portrays, and that, in fact, is a sure route to burnout,” said Spiro.

Years ago, APS used grant money from the foundation to hire managers to help principals with administrative tasks. When the funding ended, the position phased out, said Deputy Superintendent David Jernigan.

But the district saw value in the role, and this year gave principals the option to hire business managers. Not every school chose to hire one, but those that did had to make budget trade-offs to pay for the position. Morningside, for example, decided to forgo an instructional coach in favor of a manager.

School Business Manager Brian Baron talks on the phone as he prepares before meeting with the principal Audrey Sofianos at his office at Elementary School on Friday, September 28, 2018. Baron was hired this school year to handle administrative duties so that the school principal could spend more time on instructional activities. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

icon to expand image

The salary range for Atlanta school managers is $76,760 to $126,000; the average salary of the newly hired managers is $94,946.

The effort isn't just about bringing in people with business know-how. Sofianos and other principals are participating in a three-year professional development process through the National SAM Innovation Project. The nonprofit organization traces its roots to a 2002 pilot in Kentucky launched with Wallace Foundation funds.

APS expects to pay $193,500 for the first year of training. Fifteen Gwinnett principals also are receiving the training this year.

The project tracks how much time principals spend on various tasks, differentiating administrative duties from those related to teaching and learning, and offers mentoring.

The principals meet daily with a school staffer who reviews how they’re using their time.

Sofianos checks in with the school secretary for 15 to 20 minutes to think through her day and plan the next several days. Together, they make sure she carves out time to observe and give feedback to teachers, look at student data and curriculum, or meet with groups of teachers about new ideas to implement.

When she started the process in August, Sofianos said the data showed she spent less than a third of her time on instruction. Now, she’s spending nearly half her work day on it.

The system is intended to help principals identify in advance the chores that somebody else can handle. At Morningside, many of those tasks now go to Brian Baron, the new business manager.

Sofianos said she received hundreds of applications for the position. Baron's background in both business and as a former teacher made him a good fit to help run Morningside, with its roughly 935 students and 100 employees spread over two campuses.

School Business Manager Brian Baron and Principal Audrey Sofianos talk as they walk down the hall at Morningside Elementary School on Friday, September 28, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

icon to expand image

Metro Atlanta districts take a variety of approaches to running schools. Some Gwinnett high schools have business managers to oversee certain operations such as facilities and budget, while others assign those duties to assistant principals.

Clayton relies on bookkeepers and administrators to handle such duties. DeKalb delegates some of the responsibilities to secretaries and bookkeepers, while Fulton relies on principals and assistant principals.

Sofianos said she used to feel “bogged down” by logistics and thinks her ability to spend more time on instruction will lead to better student outcomes.

Early research fails to show conclusively that similar management models lead to student gains, but Spiro said it is clear that the professional development work to track a principal’s time and provide mentorship results in leaders who spend more time on instruction.

That’s important in and of itself, she said. It improves the school culture and helps recruit and retain principals.

“It is helping me to be the best principal that I can be,” Sofianos said.

More about Atlanta’s school business managers

Duties: budgeting, purchasing, facilities, food services, transportation, technology, student enrollment, student data, regulatory compliance, human resources and academic operations support.

Salary range: $76,760 to $126,000

Number hired: 17