by Steven Saint

I was expecting someone with a name like Angus McBeath to be a round-bellied Texan storming the stage in snakeskin boots and a 10-gallon Stetson. The real Angus McBeath – the superintendent who pioneered site-based management in the Edmonton Unified School District in Alberta, Canada – was a perky little guy in a staid business suit with a lisp. In another lifetime, McBeath (pronounced “MacBeth”) was wearing a kilt.

In this lifetime, he’s touring the country promoting free-market models for public education. He talked to an audience of about 50 Tuesday night at the Tesla Educational Opportunity Center and was on hand for more discussion at a D-11 board work session Wednesday night.

Site-based management is being touted by D-11 directors Eric Christen and Craig Cox as the cutting-edge model that will raise the district to educational excellence or fiscal efficiency – if not both. Simply stated, it puts 90-plus percent of the district’s money and authority into the hands of principals.

The Edmonton district has open enrollment and the state’s per-pupil financial allotment follows each student to the school of his or her choice. The central administration has been transformed into a business-like enterprise which sells its services on the open market to the principals (or any other public entity, for that matter).

Principals, too, have become enterprising. McBeath gave an example of how the district saved $2 million one year by giving principals the responsibility of paying their site’s utility bills – and letting them keep any savings for other pet projects. Suddenly people started turning out the lights and watching the thermostat.

On the bottom line, the end result of 30 years of site-based management in Edmonton has been the triumph of the public school system. McBeath said most of the private and charter schools have folded up or been absorbed into the Edmonton district.

The site-based discussion reminded me a lot of what happened at the U.S. Olympic Committee four years ago. The USOC hired a former Maytag CEO named Lloyd Ward to come in and get the Olympics running like a business.

He proposed a site-based, competitive model for Olympic training. Instead of giving training centers all the money and telling athletes where to go, Ward suggested that the athletes get the money and spend it on whichever training facility they believed would maximize their performance.

Athletes liked the idea but the Olympic bureaucracy felt threatened by open competition. Ward resigned from the USOC a year later.

McBeath is still standing firm behind his model even though he admits the rest of Canada is not running out to embrace it.

“A lot of people fear change,” he said. “It’s natural to fear change. But if you do something that doesn’t work, don’t do it again.”