2019 Risk All Star: Donald Noel

To Improve Childhood Education, This Risk Manager Is Focusing on Teacher Safety

Donald Noel knows that when it comes to children, their education is the most important thing. In a system that serves almost 200,000 students and provides income for 22,000 employees, making every penny count is critical.

Donald Noel, risk and safety manager, School District of Palm Beach County, Fla.

But at one of the largest school districts in the country — Palm Beach County, Fla. — Noel knew that they weren’t counting pennies the way that they should be … pennies, he said, that eventually added up to almost $10 million in insurance claims.

Noel stepped into his role as risk and safety manager for Palm Beach County schools in April 2019 but was first hired by the district as an insurance specialist in January 2018. Before he began his new position, this risk manager knew something had to be done to reduce the cost of insurance claims for the 180 schools he oversaw.

The system was isolated and inefficient. Millions of unnecessary dollars were being spent on workers’ compensation and other liability claims every year. The money was coming from funds that could have ultimately been used to improve childhood education and the salaries of educators.

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While it was the betterment of childhood education that inspired him, it was the lack of education he saw in the adults that motivated him; the origin and cost of claims was a foreign concept to stakeholders. He said the average principal didn’t know how much was being spent per year on claims and that 90% of the claims were coming from workers’ comp — anything from auto accidents to falling off chairs in the classroom.

While claim root analysis is his second nature, finding a way to explain the concept to stakeholders who were not familiar with the industry presented a challenge.

“The biggest challenge was the idea,” said Noel, a 35-year veteran of the insurance industry. “How do I get these risk owners at each school to understand where the claims are coming from first, and then see how they compare to other schools in the district?”

He not only managed to find it, but he also found a way to spell it out for them in black and white.

He created a dashboard called “Total Cost of Risk” that calculated cost to determine the validity of a claim. The school IT department helped him create this portal where stakeholders could compare their numbers to other schools in the district more clearly.

The Total Cost of Risk dashboard shows the cost of claims at each school broken down by number of students, so that risk owners, which include principals and other senior leadership, can compare their claims to other schools with similar exposures.

“It gives context to the numbers for a non-insurance person,” said Dianne Howard, director of risk and benefits for Palm Beach County School District.

“In the past, we’ve always provided the schools with numbers. I think what’s new is the fact that now they can compare … there’s always a little bit of competitive edge among schools. They’re going to see it and say, ‘I want to be better,’” said Howard. “It’s pushing them in the direction to do safety training where the claims are.”

According to Howard, who won a 2018 Risk All Star, and Noel, the numbers of claims from the school are already showing significant decreases for the fall quarter. “I’m very proud and I’m very happy,” said Howard of Noel’s impact to the school’s system. “Especially since Don has been on for such a short period of time. I’m very happy that he was able to come up with the idea and get it published.”

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Noel is aware of the risks that come with the current social climate and evolving world, including a school shooting that he responded to last fall at a regional high school.

In an educational environment where personal safety and protection are paramount, safety training for even minor circumstances cannot be overlooked. But in a world where there are risks around every corner, thanks to Noel, the Palm Beach County school district can see where it might be falling short and where its successes are.

“We are coming up on our first year, and we had a lot of great reaction,” said Noel. “We are going to bring our numbers down simply by educating a lot of educators. How about that?” &

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Risk All Stars stand out from their peers by overcoming challenges through exceptional problem solving, creativity, clarity of vision and passion.

See the complete list of 2019 Risk All Stars.

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]