After 25 years at Richardson ISD, 15 of those as the district’s chief financial officer, Tony Harkleroad has announced he will retire in December.
Many know Harkleroad as RISD’s no-nonsense, unflappable man-in-the-spotlight when parent questions get toughest. Few know he’s been married to wife, Linda, for 29 years, or that he was Scoutmaster for sons Tyler and Nicholas, now graduates of Richardson High, West Junior High and Heights Elementary. He was president of their school’s PTA for two years, he served on RISD Council of PTAs for two years and he was active in the orchestra boosters. I sat down with him in his office on Greenville Avenue.
Why retire now? There’s so much going on. Doesn’t RISD need your memory?
I don’t know that there’s ever a good time. There’s always going to be a need for someone to have that skill set and that institutional knowledge. We’ve had a lot of institutional knowledge go out the door in the last few years. Patti Kieker retired, and she had 30+ years, and it’s just difficult to replace that institutional knowledge. But, it’s happened before, and you try to document things and leave it better than you found it. That’s about all you can do.
Now is as good a time as any, because we just finished our financial statements – the board accepted them Monday night – and we haven’t started the budget process in earnest. I’ve said forever that I would retire as soon as I was eligible. Then, recently, I began to waffle and thought I might stay a little bit longer. But we’ve got a new superintendent and we’ve got a relatively new board – it’s just a different time. So I’m going to stick with my original plan.
I’ve referred to you as RISD’s Financial Guru. How do you describe your job?
They are splitting my division, but what I’ve been responsible for is finance, which includes accounting, budgeting, payroll, the tax office, cash management and purchasing; facilities services, which includes maintenance, grounds, custodial, bond project management, warehouse and print shop; transportation; child nutrition; risk management, which is workers’ compensation, insurance policies and benefits; elections; and grants and entitlements. But, when people ask me what I do, I just tell them I handle the district’s money.
Will a replacement be hired before you leave in December?
I think that’s their hope. They posted to hire a chief financial officer, which is an assistant superintendent level position. We’re looking at applicants now, and they’re hoping to interview applicants as early as next week.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced? Is there anything you wish you could go back and try again?
I think everyone wishes they could have a second shot at some things. When I first came into this role, we had some fairly significant challenges, which is why Dr. [Carolyn] Bukhair asked me to do the job. It was a tough time. Right now, it’s a relatively easy time. Property values are growing. Enrollment’s growing. We’ve got money coming in. Almost anybody can manage it when that’s happening. Anybody can spend money. But we’ve had times when enrollment was declining. We’ve had times when property values were declining. A lot of people who are here now haven’t experienced that. We’ve had times when those two things happened together – where property values and enrollment declined simultaneously. That is considered the “perfect storm” in school finance. But we were able to withstand that.
Enrollment growth is a challenge, certainly. It’s a different kind of challenge. And we’ve had different marching orders on that front over the years. We’ve built a number of schools – Forest Lane Academy, Audelia Creek, Thurgood Marshall and Carolyn Bukhair. And then the philosophy shifted and we didn’t want to change attendance boundaries – that was the board’s strategy and directive. Districts growing around us, like Frisco, change their boundaries every year. Many people don’t realize we’re second only to Frisco over the last 5 years in terms of growth, and we haven’t changed our boundaries in a very long time.
In 2011, we faced cuts in funding from the legislature. We faced changes in the law in 2006 with tax rate compression. But we’ve been able to weather those pretty well.
Cuts in funding – what does that translate to?
Fortunately for us, when funding cuts came, we were able to see them coming. We recognized that those funds were going to go away, and we started preparing two years ahead. We gave lower pay raises, we were more frugal with allocations, we sought waivers for class sizes that exceeded 22 to 1 – but we felt like those were less destructive strategies than some of our neighbors who were cutting teachers. We tried very hard, and were successful, in protecting our teachers. We still had to make cuts, but they were as far away from the classroom and our staff as possible.
Let’s talk about your successes. What are you proudest of?
The way I’ve always viewed my job is to protect the district financially and make sure we have the resources to do the things that our community and our administration want to do. And I think we’ve been able to do that. Financially, we are much stronger now than when I started. I think that’s always the goal – leave it better than you found it.
And how do you measure that strength?
I’ll tell you a very objective way to measure strength – the bond rating. Rating agencies come in and look at that in detail. They have about 60 different criteria that they use to evaluate school districts, and we have the highest bond rating of any school district in the state. Only four other districts rate as high – Highland Park, Plano, Houston and Austin. Every one of those districts has access to more dollars per student than we do, and yet we have as high a bond rating as they do. That is something to be proud of.
Do you ever have to tighten the purse strings on trustees and administrators?
All the time. That’s where you want to figure out what their priorities are and find the resources to fund their priorities. You start out saying, “What are the things you would like to see done?” And you have them prioritize those things, because their list is huge. Then you go from wish list to “what are your real needs,” and try to find a way accomplish those things.
Doesn’t that set up conflict between you and your trustees or your administrators?
You just have to lay it out for them and show them what they’d have to do to make [spending] bigger. You ask, “Are you willing to increase the tax rate?” You broaden their view.
So you’re not there to tell them no.
Well, sometimes I am. [laughing] Or at least to tell them, “You’ve either got to give up something, or you’re going to eat up your reserves or you’re going to have to increase your tax rate.”
You interacted with other RISD parents in things like PTA and orchestra boosters. Did being an RISD executive ever make that tricky?
It happened. People find out what you do and they have an ear to vent. You try to just listen, and sometimes you try to explain. Sometimes they have an issue and it’s something you can do something about. You can connect them to the right people or remedy something. Generally it was a good thing.
You mentioned that former RISD Superintendent Dr. Carolyn Bukhair asked you to do this job. Tell me about her.
She’s fantastic. I owe a lot to her. She gave me this opportunity. If my kids were young today, I would not be able to do this job. I told her, right up front, that my family was important to me. I had a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old and I didn’t want to miss out on all those things. She was very sensitive to my time and felt very strongly about family time. All the board meetings and work meetings – I know we have a lot of tough stuff going on now, but we had tough stuff going on then, too. I never missed a concert, I never missed a meeting, I never missed an activity with my kids, and I owe that to her. She had good boundaries and good balance. She was unique in that regard.
What will you do after retirement?
Whatever the heck I want. Who knows, maybe I’ll run for school board. Wouldn’t that be a hoot? I have perspective.
Are you serious?
You never know. It’s a tough job – a tough unpaid job. Lots of hours. I’m really looking forward to some unstructured time, doing some things I’d like to do. I have a lot of different interests.
Will you stay in Richardson?
Yes. We have a place in East Texas, but it’s a weekend place. Our kids are here, our friends are here. We’re still in our very first house – it’s a great neighborhood.
Harkleroad’s answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
If you’d like to send Harkleroad a message of well wishes before his retirement, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the RISD Administration Building, 400 S. Greenville Ave., Richardson TX, 75081.