Thursday, October 01, 2015

Vibrant Schools, Vibrant City: Will Grand Rapids invest in its future?

Photography by Adam Bird
What’s Best for the Kids

One phrase stuck out in the mind of Larry Oberst, chief financial officer for Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), when he met the new superintendent, Teresa Weatherall Neal. It had become her mantra, and it convinced Oberst that he wanted to work alongside her.

“She kept saying, ‘what’s best for the kids, what’s best for the kids,’” Oberst says. “I realized she meant it. It wasn’t about what was best for her career, or even what was best for the teachers and staff. It’s always been about what’s best for the kids.”

The Grand Rapids school board approved Oberst unanimously in February 2014 as the district’s new CFO, hand-picked by Weatherall Neal. Oberst, who lives in Gaines Township, is the former vice president of finance for Spectrum Health Continuing Care. He’s been in accounting for more than 30 years, a partner for the international accounting and consulting firm, BDO USA, and CFO for Holland Home, a senior care community.

“Working here, it’s been challenging and fun,” Oberst says. “There are a lot of positives going on, and the superintendent has mended many broken fences, but we still need to make a lot of changes.”

Larry Oberst (Photo by Adam Bird)

When Oberst arrived at his new position with GRPS, the third largest employer in Grand Rapids, he found plenty to do. He was on board with Weatherall Neal’s Transformation Plan (see Call it a Comeback, Rapid Growth Media, September 17, 2015) and rolled up his sleeves to continue what he calls “the first attack cost-side.”

“GRPS was still working with an old business model, the same model that’s been used for school systems for the past hundred years,” Oberst says. “To remain relevant in a constantly changing, evolving world, a business model needs to be fluid. When you hear people say, ‘But that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ you know it’s time for a change. Too often, we take the old model and tweak it, but what we need to do is toss it out and begin by asking—if we were starting a new school today, what would it look like?”

One of the first things Oberst noticed in his new position was that the business software in use at GRPS administrative offices was obsolete. He couldn’t find a reliable head count for GRPS students. The old software wasn’t issuing the regular reports he needed to oversee the GRPS budget.

“That’s how we get paid,” he says. “We receive funding per pupil from the state. New technology will get us the data we need to move forward.”

Oberst says he started asking questions that made people uncomfortable, but then—


No comments:

Post a Comment