The Final Word

Speaking Up on School Operations

Angela Smith, Ed.D.
Asst. Supt./Operations, CSBO
Aurora West SD 129

What does Operations look like in your district?

I always like to say that if we used restaurant terminology, Operations is the “back of the house.” We are everything critical to the experience, but often unseen and under-appreciated. In our district, operations includes Finance, Human Resources, Transportation, Food Service, Buildings and Grounds, Capital Projects, Technology, Information Services, School Safety and Student and Family Services. What we do directly impacts how students experience school. Clean buildings, friendly bus drivers, healthy meals, reliable technology and SEL support are all areas where operations work to provide students and staff with what they need, ensuring they are in the best possible environment for learning.

What do you see as the biggest Operations challenges facing school districts? 

Hiring and retaining quality Operations team employees continues to be a challenge. We are going to have to get creative to win the “talent war.” Rethinking schedules, work from home options, larger than normal pay increases, “grow your own;” everything has to be on the table. I think the pandemic taught us that there is nothing that Operations can’t do, but we must have solid and fully staffed teams to pull things off.  

Upcoming issues to watch…

Budgets are going to get tighter coming out of ESSER and I think we are all waiting for a shoe to drop with state funding. While we all try hard to keep any cuts away from the classroom and default to other areas to cut first, we must remember that cuts to Operations – especially things like preventative maintenance — can have long-term ramifications. On the positive side, I think Operations will continue to lead the way on sustainability initiatives. From geothermal to solar, green cleaning to EV’s, our Operations department has made great strides that benefit our budget and our planet. 

What districts can do to improve Operations? 

Operations must have a seat at the table just like our counterparts in other departments. Don’t force us to be the bad guy and come in at the end and say it’s not possible, include our voices early. With our district Operations team, we stress that we are a customer service organization. Depending on the issue, we might be serving students, buildings, teachers or the entire community, but we always think with a customer service mindset. For large districts like ours, it’s also important to think about scalability and consistency. I hate saying no to great ideas, but if we aren’t going to be able to pull it off district wide, we run the risk that we create equity issues or have to stop programs that some will fall in love with. Better to say no to some things on the front end to avoid the pain later. We all need to think “big picture.”