Outside the Ropes

Superintendents from business and the military learn about system leadership informally and in seminars by Scott LaFee

If there’s one thing you can say about nontraditional superintendents—the men and women of business, government and the military who leave those fields to become school system leaders—it’s that they never take the easy job.

"School districts tend to look outside for a superintendent only when things have gotten so bad that doing the same old thing just doesn’t feel like it’s going to work,” says Thomas Vander Ark, executive director of education and scholarship programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a former businessman-turned-superintendent in Federal Way, Wash., from 1994 through 1999.

“That’s when boards start looking at alternative sources for a new superintendent, someone who will generally come into a job embraced by all manner of unreasonable expectations.”

And why not?

Nontraditional superintendents are, almost by definition, great achievers—at least based on their resumes in industry, politics or the military. These are people who have founded or run successful companies. They have been elected to public office. They are, in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, “the very model of a modern Major-General.”

“That’s not to say they don’t come into their new jobs as superintendents without considerable trepidation,” says Don McAdams, president of the Center for Reform of School Systems in Houston. “They know they’re going into something outside their experience base. They know it’s going to be tough. But they also think they can do it. They think they have something to offer.”

Complex Challenges

To be sure, most superintendents work their way up through the system. They begin as teachers, become principals and get promoted to the central office where they tackle ever-larger management roles. That’s the traditional route.

Nontraditional superintendents are a decided minority, though an expanding one. They work in all types of school districts, though most tend to receive appointments in larger, more urban systems.

“When school boards start looking at nontraditional superintendents, they’re looking for fundamental change,” says McAdams, who formerly served on the school board in Houston. “They’re saying that they don’t believe that there’s just one system or way of doing things.”

Such thinking is fairly common in big urban districts, where the issues are not merely myriad and confoundingly complex but also attain scales unseen in smaller districts.

“You’ve got to remember a lot of urban districts are dysfunctional, low-performing. They need and want to change,” McAdams says. “Many suburban districts, on the other hand, are pretty much well-oiled machines. Things work. That doesn’t mean they don’t have problems, but their problems are smaller. Big districts have big problems.”

A smaller district wrestling with the routine crises of education—making sure there are enough textbooks, that the buses run on time, that students with significant disabilities receive appropriate placements, that student performance meets the new federal standards of progress—isn’t going to venture far into the unknown for a new superintendent. It doesn’t need to and wouldn’t want to for practical reasons.

“Smaller districts have smaller management teams,” McAdams says. “A superintendent must handle more of the nitty-gritty. He or she is more engaged in a fuller range of activities than a superintendent in a big district. A nontraditional superintendent coming in from, say, a big corporation, would have little or no knowledge about the finer points of running a small school district and there would be no one to turn to for help. Large districts have experts in every imaginable field: facilities, accounting, contracts, curriculum. In a small district, the superintendent probably wears most of those hats.”

Training Programs

Traditional and nontraditional superintendents do share at least one thing, says Tim Quinn, managing director of the Broad Urban Superintendents Academy, a rigorous, 10-month training program for public school chief executives. About half of the program’s participants over the past three years have come from non-education fields.

“It’s the qualities of leadership. Both kinds know how to lead,” says Quinn, who also heads the Michigan Leadership Institute, a private corporation that promotes professional development of leaders for school districts and other public service organizations. The Urban Superintendents Academy is funded by the Broad Center for Management of School Systems, part of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation.

“The thing nontraditional superintendents don’t have coming into their jobs is history, a knowledge of all of the things that can and cannot be done. As a result, they take a fresh approach. They don’t accept that things can’t be done because they come from worlds where things do get done, where excuses aren’t accepted. Whether in reality all things are possible, I don’t know. Reality is probably different from what they expected.”

That’s a fact new nontraditional superintendents learn fast.

“Most have some idea of what they’re getting into,” Quinn says. “But they are still quite surprised, generally, by how the system works, who has control and to what degree, the restrictions on how funds can be used, all of the regulations. Union contracts tend to be a real eye-opener.”

Vander Ark, who served as a consultant for Capgemini, a national business technology firm, before accepting the superintendency of the Federal Way, Wash., school district, says being a nontraditional superintendent, especially in the first couple of years, is extremely demanding. “The learning curve is steep. There’s often a widespread impression that you don’t understand and will never understand what it’s really like to be an educator,” he observes.

“On the plus side, nontraditional superintendents have the benefit of being able to ask a lot of dumb questions. They can question everything. Sometimes this can set off landmines or offend incumbents in the system, but being new means bringing something new to the table. You can make impatience a virtue in the sense that you translate it into a sense of urgency.”

Of course the best and most successful nontraditional superintendents find ways to promote their vision and implement their changes with the fewest explosions and/or hurt feelings. How they accomplish that is what this story is about. Below are brief profiles of four nontraditional superintendents: Joseph Wise of the Christina School District in Delaware; Paula M. Dawning of Benton Harbor Area Schools in Michigan; Don Gaetz of Okaloosa County Public Schools in Florida; and Raymond F. Arment III of the Eatonville School District in Washington.

Wise, Dawning, Gaetz and Arment were all successful before they became superintendents. All can still make that claim. How did they do it? Where did they turn for guidance, insight and wisdom for leading a public school system? What do they think makes a good leader? Can a good leader lead anywhere?

Even in education?

Joseph Wise
Christina School District, Newark, Del.
Shortly after he became superintendent of the Christina School District in September 2003, Joseph Wise began a four-month tour of every school in the district, the largest in Delaware with 28 campuses and 20,000 students, pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade.

Wise visited, at his count, 417 classrooms. He did it to get to know the schools, their staffs and the students. He did it to let them get to know him.

Certainly there was curiosity. Wise arrived as an outsider, though one with some educational credentials. He had once been a teacher (in Orlando, Fla.) and had served as associate superintendent for organizational development in Anne Arundel County in Maryland and interim senior assistant superintendent for planning with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina.

But the bulk of his resume was business-related: chairman and chief executive officer for eSchool Solutions, an Orlando-based educational technology firm, and director of organizational development, employment and resort entertainment for the Disney World division of the Walt Disney Co.

Wise was hired to resolve a worsening financial crisis and shake the school district out of its doldrums, to “rock the paradigms,” according to The Business Ledger, a local newspaper. He acted quickly, revamping accounting procedures and asking for a state audit of the district’s books and an independent evaluation of all district programs. He says he’s tried hard to get everyone to buy into his administration, to see that they have a place, a role, a responsibility.

Principals, for example, are expected to act “like CEOs, not Waffle House managers,” he says. They develop their own budgets and run their own schools within broad, but precise, parameters.

“It’s both tight and loose,” Wise says. “The tight part is the curriculum, the pacing, the standards. These are not negotiable. These are where principals and schools must be held accountable. The loose part is in the application. If a school is doing something that works, great. Every school doesn’t have to be exactly the same, as long as they get results. I try to let people do their jobs and only get hands-on if a situation becomes bad.”

Past Experiences

Perhaps because he’s moved back and forth between education and the private sector, Wise doesn’t see much difference between the two.

“Bureaucracies are pretty much the same everywhere, in school districts and in theme parks. There’s a difference in how success is perceived, of course. In business, profits are the scorecard. It’s all about making money. The bottom line in education is not as clear because obviously we’re talking about educating children, not selling a product. But the difference between success and failure is still a lot clearer than some people say. You can tell when something’s working or not. You can hold people accountable.”

(And Wise does. In less than a year on the job, he changed 80 percent of the school principals in his district, saying, “It’s my job to not only get the right people on the bus, but get them in the right seats.”)

Wise says he draws strongly upon past personal experience, but also reads widely. “I’m a huge fan of a number of writers, though not necessarily in education.”

He likes Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don’t and Charlotte Danielson, who has written several education-themed books, most recently Enhancing Student Achievement: A Framework for School Improvement. He is a big believer in the work of the late Don Clifton, former chairman of The Gallup Organization and chief designer of the Clifton StrengthsFinder Profile, a 25-year-old program that helps participants to identify and reinforce their personal strengths.

Wise says he also keeps tabs on the work of Phillip Schlechty, whose Louisville, Ky.-based Center for Leadership in School Reform advocates institutional change that leads to quality work.

Wise believes he can bring significant academic gains to Christina. He knows he has to try.

“I decided to become a superintendent because, with the enactment of No Child Left Behind, the growing achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots, the ongoing war on poor people, I thought it was time for all hands on deck.

“I didn’t think or want to remain in business. I thought helping get public education fixed was probably the most important thing I could do in a democracy.”

Paula M. Dawning
Benton Harbor Area Schools, Benton Harbor, Mich.
After two decades as an executive at AT&T, Paula Dawning decided it was time to do something else. “I had this internal feeling of needing to give something back,” she says.

But what to do? Dawning thought hard. One day, she says, she prayed for inspiration. A few minutes later, an e-mail arrived from a friend passing along some information about a place called the Broad Academy.

Created and funded by business magnate Eli Broad and operated through the Broad Center for Management of School System, the Broad Urban Superintendents Academy is a 10-month program designed to bring business executives and others up to speed on the demands and leadership skills involved in running not just a school, but an entire school system.

Participants retain their full-time jobs and attend academy sessions over seven extended weekends around the country, during which time Broad Center staff and outside experts cover subjects like effective leadership, school governance, implementing institutional change, boosting student achievement and finding that first superintendent’s position.

Descriptions of the academy intrigued Dawning. They inspired her. She quickly applied for a position in the next class and was accepted. She was on her way.

Before enrolling in Broad, Dawning did a little homework. She visited a school district in Omaha, Neb., where she had friends. She interviewed principals, some retired administrators and an assistant superintendent.

“I didn’t want to be naïve to the challenges,” she says.

Opportunity Knocking

Attending Broad expanded and refined her knowledge. It also provided networking in a new field. She received her first shot at a superintendency even before she had finished the leadership training program.

“Someone in the Broad Institute knew someone at Benton Harbor who said they were looking for a superintendent. Somebody knew I was born in South Bend, which is close by. It was opportunity knocking, but I still spent a lot of time meditating and praying about whether I should go for the job.”

Dawning was the only job candidate without traditional credentials. The school board, struggling with serious financial and academic issues in 2001, was looking for someone who could look at the district as a business. “They wanted someone with academic experience and business acumen,” she says.

Dawning had both—a master’s degree in adult counseling from Boston University, a master’s in business administration and 20 years of marketing and sales management experience at AT&T.

Dawning landed the job in July 2002. Neither her experience nor her Broad training fully prepared her for the reality of running the 5,300-student K-12 district. “I began in a time of economic recession, when we needed to make cuts and yet I could see what we really needed were new programs to boost academics. I’d never seen a financial model like education, where revenue streams are fully variable but business costs are essentially fixed. My enrollment declines and I lose funding, but my costs don’t change. Rather, they go up. Teachers want raises. Everything gets more expensive.”

Peer Influence

She has learned to adapt. Her business experience, her exposure to cutting-edge technologies at AT&T, her knowledge of how to manage large numbers of people have all paid off. “Everything I’ve learned comes into play,” she says.

And Dawning is still learning. She says she reads constantly, “but not necessarily books. I read a lot online. I read a lot of newsletters.”

Attending relevant conferences is another primary source of knowledge, she says. And talking to her superintendent peers. “I belong to a group of African-American superintendents. We have a lot of conversations. Most of us head similar sorts of districts so we talk about issues like poverty, single households, student preparation and readiness, parent participation. We compare our most effective strategies.”

Working in education has been a little bumpy, she says. It’s clearly not like the business world. Being a superintendent isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle.

“At first my staff didn’t know quite where I was coming from when I started asking for data, for rational approaches to programs, says Dawning, who held management roles in sales, marketing and technology during her two decades with AT&T. “But we’re all on the same page now. I’m the accountability queen. I talk in terms of outcomes, not programs. Children are our brand. We are known by our success in educating them.

“When I lost a big account in the business world, it would bother me. But it wasn’t like I was messing with someone’s life. Education is different. We’re talking about preparing children for their lives. If we mess up, that child is not going to get that chance back.”

Don Gaetz
Okaloosa County School District, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
There’s no disputing that Don Gaetz has turned things around in the Okaloosa County School District.

In 1999, no school in the 28,000-student district had rated a grade better than C on a state formula that measures student proficiencies and rate of improvement at every public school in Florida.

Gaetz knew well the sting of that assessment. He was a parent and a school board member in the district, first elected in 1994, then again in 1998. He says he thought the school district “could do better, especially in a county with a highly educated population.”

That belief, coupled with a financial scandal in the school district, prompted him to run for the superintendent’s office, an elected position, in 2000. He prevailed in a three-way race, winning 76 percent of the vote.

Gaetz says he did not run for superintendent as an education expert. He was a businessman, co-founder of the VITAS Healthcare Corp., one of the nation's largest providers of hospice services to terminally ill patients and their families with more than 5,000 employees working in 24 cities and annual revenues approaching $500 million. (Gaetz and his partners sold their controlling interest in the company earlier this year.)

The local business community thought Gaetz could instill a similar sort of success in the Okaloosa County school district and pushed hard for his election. Gaetz wasn’t quite so certain but was eager to try.

“I founded a health care company without any knowledge of health care. I’ve made a career of treading where angels fear to go,” he says, chuckling. “I had a lot of doubts going in. And I very quickly realized I couldn’t lay a classical business template over education. There were some false starts.”

Sweeping Appointments

But he had ideas and a business-inspired agenda, which he advocated with the fervor of a corporate president who knows he must answer to stockholders. Gaetz slashed administrative costs and eliminated 41 central-office positions. The savings were funneled to individual schools where principals and parent-teacher advisory councils control 91 percent of revenues.

In return, Gaetz demanded accountability. He made sure he got it by installing the right people for each job. “I thought it was my job to find the strongest, brightest education leaders in the district, people who may have become marginalized.”

One result: He replaced almost every principal in the district.

His efforts were sometimes unsettling and Gaetz is not without his critics, but it’s hard to dismiss the results. In the latest statewide assessment, 86 percent of Okaloosa’s schools earned the grade of A. No school was rated lower than a B. For the second consecutive year, Okaloosa topped the state’s 67 counties with the biggest percentage of high-performing schools. No district in the state, crowed Gaetz, is rated higher academically.

Gaetz graciously diverts compliments to his fellow administrators and teaching staff. He says improvement came, in some ways, simply by reducing “institutional inertia.”

“Institutions can get used to doing things a certain way,” he sighs.

His contribution was to offer a different path, to propose alternative options.

He stays on top of things by being a self-described “voracious reader” of everything written about education management and learning practices. In some ways, it’s a simple matter of survival.

“When the cabinet gathers around the table to discuss, say, math proficiencies, I’m the least experienced person in the room. So I read a lot and I listen a lot.”

He also turns to his peers, like colleague John Rogers, the veteran superintendent of Santa Rosa County District Schools in Milton, Fla.

“John has more than three decades as a teacher, principal, administrator and mentor. He can speak with the voice of experience. With him, I can share ideas.”

Raymond F. Arment III
Eatonville School District 404,
Eatonville, Wash.

Ray Arment isn’t quite the traditional nontraditional superintendent. That is to say, there’s quite a bit of education in his background and his blood. He majored in the subject and earned a teaching certificate in Pennsylvania. His parents were educators.

But before Arment could become fully engaged in the teaching profession as a young man, he went to war. “It was the time of Vietnam. I joined the Army. I just stayed longer than most of my friends.”

In fact, Arment remained on active duty for 28 years. When he retired, he was a colonel looking for a new mission. He found it at the age of 52 in Eatonville, a small town of 2,000 residents located 30 miles southeast of Tacoma at the edge of Mount Rainier National Park.

In 1998, the Eatonville school board was looking for somebody different, but not just for difference’s sake. They had had plenty of that with four superintendents in eight years. Arment has lasted longer than any.

“Coming in I felt like Rip van Winkle,” he says chuckling. “I was full of ideas from my undergraduate days in the ’70s, but obviously everything had changed. There had been three decades’ worth of research and learning. People knew a lot more.”

Arment worked hard to catch up, but he says learning to be an effective superintendent isn’t much different from learning to be an effective military officer. “It’s all about taking time to think and communicate. Contrary to what people might think, there’s a lot of give and take in the Army. Military decisions might be a little more formal, but they’re still collaborative.”

It’s the same with leadership, he says. “There are certain ethics and principles that are common. In education, though, they have to be coupled with a caring commitment. You have to believe in this work. I was offered jobs in defense industries after I retired from the Army for much greater salaries, but I didn’t have any passion for them.”

If passion comes from within, Arment finds inspiration and direction from without, from talking with fellow superintendents, from reading various education-related magazines and from spending time with students.

“Like any job, there are great days and tough days. On tough days, there’s nothing better than to go read a book to a 1st grader or eat lunch with some middle school students. They’re not afraid to tell you what you need to know.”

Scott LaFee is a staff writer with the San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: scott.lafee@uniontrib.com