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Mark A. Higdon

Shunning Praise So Others Might Shine by Jay P. Goldman

Mark Higdon never has been one to hog the limelight. That's probably as true now in his role as the long-running superintendent in rural Campbell County, Wyo., as it was in his collegiate days.

 

Back in the mid-1960s as a master's candidate in speech and theater arts at University of Northern Colorado, Higdon shunned the attention that comes with being a lead performer. He preferred the role of backstage support and accepted as his only on-stage part that of the masked executioner in Shakespeare's "The Twelfth Night." The one detail he vividly recalls: "I wore a cloak over my head."

Higdon absorbed a lot of insight about what it takes to be an effective organizational leader from his student days, especially as a standout athlete in basketball and track. He notes: "My coaches used to say that there is no 'I' in team. I believe in the power of 'we.'"

He has worked in Campbell County, which enrolls 7,500, for virtually the entirety of his 35-year career, save for a short break to teach at a high school in Billings, Mont. He has worked as a language arts teacher, activities coordinator, high school principal and deputy superintendent before reaching the district's top berth in 1987.

Those long-held connections with his surroundings have allowed Higdon to build his leadership base on relationships. "It helps with understanding a situation and the culture, but it also means all of your mistakes are here," he says, in his common self-deprecating way. "Everyone knows what worked and what didn't."

Higdon has worked aggressively to develop a shared vision among the stakeholders, to empower those in the organization to work toward common goals and to support their successes and failures. He ensures that every board meeting agenda includes a celebration report, where academic accomplishments can snare some of the same attention that Campbell County athletics has enjoyed for some time.

"He's effective because ... he's well aware of relationships and who works well together," says teacher union co-chair Vicki Swenson, an elementary school teacher. "He's very good at recognizing people for their efforts."

Swenson and several others make a point of commenting on their superintendent's keen intellect, particularly his ability to master the complexities of school finance regulations. But it is Higdon's inclination to diminish his own empowering role-even when the evidence suggests otherwise-that has made him a fixture on the home front and a major force on the state level in Wyoming.

Jeff Wasserburger, an associate high school principal in Campbell County, thinks he knows what makes the big boss tick. "His key to being a great leader is never allowing people to praise him."

Wasserburger may be in the best position to know. An elected member of the Wyoming House of Representatives, he sees Higdon as a major behind-the-scenes force bolstering last year's unprecedented legislative approval of $94 million in funding for K-12 education statewide, including about $50 million to raise teacher salaries. He says Higdon also has been a leader in the long-running efforts to settle a two-decade-old lawsuit over school funding equity statewide.

"He's effective because he practices diplomacy," says Wasserburger, a Republican. "He never enters into a confrontational situation with a legislator and he's gifted enough to turn an issue around from an angered legislator to a positive situation. … Even people who may have derogatory things to say (about his position) pay attention to him."

Because Campbell County was one of the four plaintiff school districts, Higdon says his ongoing role in helping to resolve the school finance suit is simply the result of "preparation meeting opportunity." He adds about his frequent forays to the state capital, 250 miles away: "My board has been kind enough to let me work at the state level."

Burke Jackson, who chairs the school board, says Higdon's grasp of finance issues has benefited education statewide. "I hesitate to say this, but without his knowledge of finance, I believe we'd be in a lot more trouble than we are."

Held in the highest regard by peers, Higdon is a past president of the Wyoming Association of School Administrators and a recipient of the Wyoming Superintendent of the Year Award in 1993.

To the end, though, Higdon swears that none of the significant accomplishments attached to his name is fully deserved. "I can't think of a thing I have done alone," he says.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

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Mark Higdon