A 'salesman' makes schools his business John Golle and company target 9 city schools.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What John T. Golle couldn't get the public schools to do for his own sons, he thinks he can do for thousands of schoolchildren across the country.

Mr. Golle was prosperous. His sons went to good schools in a well-to-do Minneapolis suburb. Yet he still couldn't find a way to get the public schools to provide the individual attention he felt his sons needed.

"I have a learning-disabled son, one of those kids who fell between the cracks and today appears on someone's chart as a statistic," Mr. Golle said in a telephone interview from the Minneapolis headquarters of Education Alternatives Inc., the firm that plans to run nine of Baltimore's public schools.

That son, the older one, fell behind. The younger one, considered gifted, was bored and restless. In both cases, Mr. Golle felt, his sons were hurt by the schools' tendency to label students.

His sons are grown now -- the older one a landscaper, the younger one in college. But Mr. Golle still hasn't given up on making public schools effective.

Anyone who has met Mr. Golle knows this story, and repeats it when asked to explain what motivates him: the president of his company, David A. Bennett, whom Mr. Golle lured from the superintendent's job in the St. Paul school system; Mary Parham, the principal of South Pointe in Miami Beach, EAI's first public-private venture; his longtime friend and business partner, Robert Holmes, and the stockbroker, Pat Sidders, who worked on EAI's first public stock offering and became a convert to its educational concepts.

A private man

But ask Mr. Golle his sons' names, or other personal details about his life -- his wife's name, the length of his marriage, his own experience as a student in public schools -- and he clams up.

"That wouldn't be appropriate," he explained, politely but firmly.

Welcome to the contradictory world of John T. Golle (pronounced "goalie.") He's a private man with a public company that plans to profit off public schools. He's a salesman,but he's also "sincere" -- a word Mr. Golle used several times to describe himself. His ties are loud, his speech is soft. One friend sees him as at once "hyper and patient" -- ambitious, but capable of waiting on slow-moving bureaucracies.

Ironically, Mr. Golle is not an educator. But like many successful entrepreneurs, Mr. Golle has surrounded himself with experienced people who have the expertise he lacks -- Mr. Bennett, with 24 years in public school administration, and Kathryn A. Thomas, an EAI vice president who has taught and set up computer camps for children.

"He's just a good human being that you want to kick in the butt once a week," said Mr. Holmes, who hired Mr. Golle for Xerox when Mr. Golle was a University of Minnesota business student and ended up going into business with him four years later.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke also is a fan: "He's got the kind of tenacity that a person needs to succeed in private enterprise. He's an ambitious guy, and I don't say that in a pejorative way. He just wears different ties than I wear."

"Charismatic? Yes. Persuasive? Yes," said Mike Maxim, chairman of the Duluth, Minn., school board, where EAI has a consulting role. "I like him. Big ego, though. And, while I would not characterize him this way, some people call him a snake oil salesman."

Mr. Golle, a successful salesman for more than 20 years, bristles at how that word -- salesman, not snake oil -- keeps coming up.

"If it comes off as if I'm selling something, if selling is the equivalent of persuading, then brand me with that brand," said Mr. Golle, 48, who draws a $120,000 salary as chairman of EAI. "I'm a person bent on a mission. It's almost evangelical because I believe so strongly in the need to help children."

However, the mission has changed since Mr. Golle founded his company in 1986. And the Baltimore venture may be his company's turning point, the chance to show a profit for the first time since its founding.

The concept behind EAI started at another Minneapolis corporation, Control Data Corp., which began the market research on public school alternatives. When Control Data fell on hard times, Mr. Golle bought its research and formed EAI.

At that point, Mr. Golle had been a partner since 1970 in Golle & Holmes, which designed training programs for Fortune 500 programs. But the business had sold one of its five companies and merged three, so the two partners were looking for new opportunities.

They chose divergent paths. Mr. Holmes invested in automobile sales and leases, and in some Arabian horses. Mr. Golle decided to form EAI and open his own group of private schools, the Tesseract Schools.

"At Tesseract, we take all the labels off children -- attention deficit, hyperactive, special, gifted and talented," Mr. Golle said.

Most schools, he said, measure students by arbitrary time standards. "You have five minutes to learn 2 plus 2. If you do it in six, you get a 'B;' 10, you get a 'C.' That's not the way a group of people learns. We've spent a lot of money in five years and perfected a system that allows each child's needs to be evaluated on an individual basis."

(The name "Tesseract," inspired by Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," is meant to denote creative approaches to problems. In the novel, children "tesser" through space by collapsing distances, like a string held between two fingers. However, the title has little personal resonance for EAI's staff; it was chosen by a company hired to find a name.)

The two Tesseract schools in Minnesota and Arizona charged less than traditional private schools, about $5,000 a year. The start-up costs proved to be prohibitive, however, forcing EAI into the public sector. But those private schools are an integral part of the EAI pitch. A Baltimore committee visited the Minnesota one; Superintendent Walter G. Amprey checked out the Arizona school while on vacation last year.

It took "one look"

"I walked in a bit jaundiced and [thought] 'show me,' " said Pat Sidders, a vice president at John G. Kinnard & Co., the Minneapolis firm involved in the first offering of EAI stock. "One look at that school and in 20 minutes, the hair on the back of my neck stood up."

While Mr. Sidders may be convinced, there are still a lot of people saying "Show me," despite their personal enthusiasm for Mr. Golle.

"He's very personable, very committed," said Irene Dandridge, co-president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. "If you just listened to him, you'd turn all your schools over to him. But he hasn't made any money and he hasn't proved anything yet."

Because EAI is in the midst of its second public stock offering, Mr. Golle and investment analysts familiar with the company cannot talk about its profit potential. It has lost money every year, but Inc. magazine projected in a 1991 article that it could show a pretax profit by 1993. Mr. Golle told the magazine that he expected revenues of $30 million and investors' returns of 30 percent as soon as he had 20 schools.

The publicity about the Baltimore deal may help EAI reach those 20 schools faster.

Some questions

Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, isn't worried about EAI's ability to make money. But Mr. Finn, soon to be a member of the Edison Project, Chris Whittle's chain of private schools, questions where public-private partnerships have enough flexibility to provide radical changes.

"I have no doubt that you can write a contract that guarantees a profit," Mr. Finn said. "The question that comes to my mind is, 'How much of the status quo did they agree to maintain?' If you agree to keep all the staff, all the hours, all the classrooms, all the grades, you could end up in a situation where you have only 10 percent flexibility."

Mr. Golle dismisses the Edison Project for reaching too few students. According to its own projections, Mr. Golle said, Mr. Whittle's schools will reach 1 million students. What happens to the other 39 million?

"I have taken this on as a personal mission and am virtually committed to devote the rest of my life here," said Mr. Golle.

"A person gets to a certain point where you start to say, 'What's really important?' It happened to me in my early 40s. How new my car was just didn't matter any more."

So how new is his car? "It's a 1990 Honda Accord," Mr. Golle said, adding quickly: "American-made."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°