David Wilkerson was describing the size of his enterprise. It employs some 800 people. It has a $100 million operating budget.
It’s also in Waukee.
What business in Waukee is that big? The Waukee Community School District. It’s that big and getting bigger. The district has a million square feet of school space to be used and cared for. What business in Waukee is that big? The Waukee Community School District. It employs some 900 people and has a $100 million operating budget. It’s that big and getting bigger. The district has a million square feet of school space to be used and cared for.
"We’ll be adding – at a minimum – 30 new teaching positions in the new school year," said Waukee School Superintendent Dr. David Wilkerson. "With the addition of operating staff we’ll be adding some 40 new people."
The search for new teachers has already begun, Wilkerson said. "We started advertising in February and will pretty much be hiring all spring into early summer," he said. "We bring all the new hires in prior to the beginning of the school year for some district level training on two days in July."
The Waukee School District, its website proclaims, "serves more than 8,000 students from preschool through twelfth grade. Students come from Clive, Urbandale, Waukee and West Des Moines as well as open enrollment students from other communities outside the 55-square-miles of the district."
None of Wilkerson’s degrees in education prepared him to manage such a far-fling enterprise. "I hadn’t a clue," he conceded. But somewhere along the line, he began to study sewer lines carefully. "About 15 years ago, I discovered that sewer lines were the key to understanding the where and how a school district was going to grow. Where the city and developers were putting in sewer lines, that’s where the new homes were going to be."
The challenge – as for any business – is to successfully manage such explosive growth, said Wilkerson, who noted that a recurring theme in business classes are those firms that couldn’t manage their growth.
"I was speaking to a class at Drake about contract negotiations," Wilkerson said. "But all that the students wanted to ask me about was our growth. It’s part of our culture but it’s not something we want to dwell upon. "The quality of education is what matters most. Not only are we growing but the quality of our education is going up. Our test scores are rising."
Wilkerson said his management team and the Waukee Board of Education have watched other fast-growing local school districts sputter and have had to scale back plans because of their inability to manage their growth. Schools, unlike businesses, must serve the clientele they’re given. Public schools can’t adjust their prices or reach out to a different demographic, Wilkerson added.
"Our crystal ball can sometimes be pretty cloudy, but it’s important to make sure we don’t overbuild," he stated.
Then there is the matter of local authority. Most people would be surprised at how little power a school board has, said Wilkerson pointing to the so-called "Dillon Rule." "Dillon’s Rule" – named for a 19th-century Iowa Supreme Court Justice who saw local officials as amoral individuals granting power to localities very narrowly. Under Dillon’s Rule, it is assumed that the local government does not have the power to do anything unless the Iowa Code specifically says it does.
"I refuse to look at growth as a problem," Wilkerson said. "It is an opportunity, "said Wilkerson. "Every decision we make is grounded in the idea that this is best for our students."
In any case, Wilkerson pointed to his team of senior managers (his "cabinet") and the Waukee School Board. Cindi McDonald, the Associate Superintendent of School Improvement heads education while Chief Operating Officer Eric Rose is expert on construction and maintenance. Likewise, Lora Appenzeller-Miller handles the money including negotiating school bus contracts.
The Board of Education also drew praise. "We’re really fortunate that everybody elected to the school board has served the district before," Wilkerson added. "They may have worked on the WCS Foundation, the PTO, or, the School Boundaries Committee -– that’s the really tough one. But their experience is invaluable."
And for the future? Wilkerson said he’s been known to take senior staffers for a car ride looking for those tell-tale sewer lines.