By Peter Walker for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Throughout their MBA courses, business school students get the chance to apply their new skills to hypothetical problems from the world of commerce.
Some, however, are also asked to go one better and tackle genuine cases. And what better challenge than reorganizing a major education authority with a debt of $100 million?
That was the task facing students from a series of leading U.S. schools earlier this month at the Education Leadership Case Competition, the first contest of its kind in the country.
It involved teams of MBA students from seven top business schools, among them Northwestern University's Kellogg School, and the Hass school at the University of California, Berkeley, which hosted the event.
The scale of the task facing them was enough to make even the most experience executive have to think long and hard.
The teams were asked to come up with a new financial plan for the Oakland Unified School District, which runs schools for 40,000 pupils in and around the Californian city of that name.
The financially-troubled educational authority has been in state receivership since June 2003, and owes $100 million to the state, the largest such debt in Californian history.
One plan mooted recently to help clear some of the loan was the $60 million sale of the school district's administration building to a developer, which would have been demolished to make way for condominiums and commercial space. However, this was abandoned following local opposition.
And while such financial woes might seem unglamorous compared to a career in investment banking or private equity, there is a clear need for talented, well-trained business professionals in the U.S. education system -- since 1991, seven California school districts have had to be taken over by the state.
New financial plan
The contest was a chance for MBAs to understand the challenges, and opportunities, in the sector, said Anna Utgoff, a Haas School MBA who developed it with classmates in the Haas Leadership in Education Club.
"We created the event to get the word out to MBAs that their business skills are really valuable and can make a significant impact in education," she said.
"Similar competitions exist for many other business professions but there wasn't an event that focused on education."
In the end, the host team won, with the three Hass MBA students and another from Berkeley's Goldman Public Policy School taking the $2,000 prize for their plans and presentation.
Teams had to focus on the school district's new financial plan, finding ways to improve its implementation and communicate how it is working to local people.
The Hass team's presentation was "the most well rounded," said Barak Ben-Gal, budget director of the Oakland Unified School District and one of the judges, who also included Professor Bill Ouchi of UCLA's Anderson School of Management, the author of "Making Schools Work."
"The presentation was very comprehensive in terms of getting the gist of the case and talking about all the different aspects that you must invest in to transition from a start-up phase to something that is more sustainable," Ben-Gal said.
A team from Northwestern's Kellogg School finished second, winning $1,000.
In the red: Students had to help turn round a school board's finances.
FACT BOXFT MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Columbia, U.S.
3. Harvard, U.S.
4. Stanford GSB, U.S.
5. London Business School, UK
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Insead, France/Singapore
8. Stern, NYU, U.S.
9. Tuck, Dartmouth, U.S.
10. Yale, U.S.
Source: Financial Times 2007
FACT BOXMBA BASICS
The classic MBA is a two-year full-time program. Accelerated and distance learning MBAs are increasingly popular.
A typical MBA student has several years' work experience and is in their late 20s.
Those who take an Executive MBA, or EMBA, tend to be older, more senior managers.
Courses are expensive, but the rewards are high -- some new MBAs now get a $100,000 basic salary, according to a survey.