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Columbia couple donates $1 million to improve public K-12 education

Friday, October 4, 2013 | 11:39 a.m. CDT; updated 10:01 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 5, 2013

COLUMBIA — Two Columbia philanthropists are dangling a $1 million carrot in front of Missouri's school districts in the hopes of improving public K-12 education across the state.

There aren't any restrictions on how the money can be spent, but only one of Missouri's 562 public school districts will receive it. Larry Potterfield, president and CEO of hunting-products company MidwayUSA, with his wife, Brenda, earmarked the money to the first K-12 district in Missouri that wins a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

The Baldrige Award, created in 1987, brands itself as the highest national performance honor that an American organization can receive.

To be considered, organizations must pay a fee that varies on sector and size, apply, and have their application viewed by an examining board of about 500 experts representing industry, professional, trade, education, health care and nonprofit organizations, according to a Pennsylvania State University news release. The primary website that has this information, for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a part of the Department of Commerce, is closed because of the government shutdown.

The most recent K-12 winner was Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools in 2009. Only six K-12 districts have won the award since education was added to eligible candidates in 1999, and no Missouri schools have ever won.

There is normally no monetary prize for award recipients, said Kellie Glenn, major gifts director for the Baldrige Foundation.

"Larry Potterfield's challenge gift is the first time in our history that we have had a financial reward tied to the Baldrige Awards," Glenn said. "By tying the financial reward to it, he felt that that would be a good incentive for the public school districts in the state of Missouri to actually adopt the Baldrige criteria and begin implementing it, and then, of course, apply for and hopefully win the award."

The Potterfields donated the money Sept. 10 to the Baldrige Foundation's care, where it will stay until a winner is selected.

"Larry Potterfield has given the Baldrige Foundation stewardship over the $1 million funds," Glenn said. "Whenever the Missouri public school district, K-12 education, wins the national award, then we will go ahead and transition those funds directly to that organization within 30 days."

The foundation is benefiting from the money in the interim, Glenn said.

"We're responsible for making sure that the $1 million gets to the organization that wins; however, he is allowing us to keep all earnings on that," she said. "Any interest or investment earnings we make on that over the next however many years or months it may take for that money to be claimed, we get to keep that."

Winning the prize

Last year, a 500-plus-member examining board scrutinized a little more than three dozen applications, Glenn said.

The number of applications went down last year because of a change that the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program instituted, which required applicants to have already won the highest performance quality award in its state, Glenn said.

"At the national level, last year we got 39 applications," she said. "All people that apply for the national award have to have already won the highest level at their state award program."

Only one school district is eligible to apply for the Baldrige Award right now, Potterfield said.

"Excellence (in) Missouri Foundation is the state program for Baldrige," Potterfield said. "A school will have to win a Missouri Quality Award before they can apply for a Baldrige Award. One school has won the Missouri Quality Award and is now eligible."

The Kansas City-area Park Hill School District won the Missouri Quality Award in 2010, making it "the first and only school district to receive the award in the 17-year history of the award," according to the district's website.

This might give that district a leg up, Potterfield said.

"You would, on the one hand, think that they would be in the lead, ... but there's always leadership changes in organizations," he said. "I know that their superintendent has retired since then, so whether they’re able to sustain quality through changes in leadership is another question."

Schools hoping to win the award are evaluated on several categories — leadership, strategic planning, customer focus, measurement, analysis and knowledge management, workforce focus, operations focus, and results.

Motivation

Potterfield said he targeted K-12 public education specifically with his donation because of its potential.

"I think we felt like that's where the greatest need was, where the greatest opportunity was," Potterfield said. "Education Week ranks Missouri about average, maybe a little bit below average in the overall quality of education," he said.

Potterfield said his family has a history with public education.

"Both of (Potterfield's children) went to K-12 here in Columbia," he said. "Both went to Hickman; I think they both went to Jeff Junior, and they both went to Midway Heights. Brenda and I are both products of Missouri public education also."

Potterfield isn't new to success or philanthropy.

Potterfield founded MidwayUSA in 1977. The privately held company specializes in hunting and gun-related products and is headquartered in Columbia, at 5875 W. Van Horn Tavern Road.

MidwayUSA itself won a Baldrige National Quality Award in 2009.

The Potterfields established the MidwayUSA Foundation in 2007, but Potterfield said he and his wife's donation came from their own funds.

Impact

Potterfield said he hopes the districts that focus on their performance goals in hopes of winning the Baldrige Award will influence the balance of districts in the state.

"There are about 25 schools that seem to have a strong interest in Baldrige in the state of Missouri," Potterfield said. "We think the 25 will fundamentally lead education in Missouri and the rest of the state will follow."

The Missouri School Boards’ Association has been providing information about the Baldrige Awards to its districts for a couple years, said Brent Ghan, chief communications officer for the Missouri School Boards' Association.

"Over the past couple of years, we've been involved in promoting Baldrige and encouraging school districts to at least investigate whether or not it might be beneficial for them," Ghan said. "We've seen growing interest in it as we've provided information to our districts about it. We’ll have to wait and see if a district can do it."

Ghan said winning an award wasn’t easy, but he thinks it will motivate school districts to examine weaknesses and work to fix them.

"It’s not an easy thing to achieve, but more and more Missouri school districts are becoming interested in Baldrige," he said. "We think this challenge gift will be an incentive for Missouri school districts to become involved in the Baldrige continuous improvement process. We're convinced that the Baldrige process has great potential to improve school district performance in our state."

The Potterfields are scheduled to formally announce their gift at an education banquet Saturday night.

"The Missouri School Boards' Association and the Missouri Association of School Administrators put on a conference each fall for their members, so this is their fall conference and Saturday night is the culmination of that," Potterfield said. "That's the biggest educational venue I think we have in the state, and the timing just happens to be right for this particular venue."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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