F. Donald Saul

Singing the Blues While Raising the Roof by JAY P. GOLDMAN

When Don Saul retires this summer wearing a career-capping honor as the 2000 National Superintendent of the Year, he will return to a youthful passion--guitar playing and singing--that has much to do with the way he is treasured in his northern Colorado community.

Saul, who is 57 and father of three grown children, jokes about his lingering musical interests. ("I’m looking forward to redeveloping my callouses," he told one newspaper reporter.) During his days as a teacher some 30 years ago, he and his 12-string guitar joined his wife on folk, blues and gospel harmonies during weekend gigs at local clubs to supplement his $430 per month take-home pay.

Saul hasn’t forgotten what it means to struggle financially during the past seven years as superintendent of the Thompson R2-J School District, one of the lowest funded districts in Colorado. Of the state’s 176 districts, Thompson is third from the bottom in terms of per-pupil aid from the state.

In spite of the limited resources, the 14,200-student district has found ways under Saul’s leadership to be innovative in curriculum and instruction and to settle annual contracts with the teachers’ union with nary a formal grievance in the last five years. He also helped to create a system of performance bonuses for teachers as measured by 10 standards, including student achievement.

"Don makes us look good. He sets us up to take credit for his wisdom," said Frances Moore, president of the school board, in her nomination letter for the Superintendent of the Year Award. "He has shifted us from a preoccupation with budget issues to a focus on student achievement and high expectations."

Saul, who joined the Thompson district in 1987 to oversee financial services and later became deputy superintendent, said it made sense to embrace standards-based education to close the loop of the instructional process. "We’ve been hearing for years about the role of assessment in our teaching, and now we need to apply the same principles to education itself: We teach, we assess and we use the results of the assessment to evaluate and improve our instruction," he said.

Even in promoting these loftier expectations of teachers, the superintendent has shown a sensitivity to staff workload that strikes some observers as uncommon. He recently dusted off his guitar to perform a few gigs with local teachers, including the memorable homespun number "The SBE (Standards-Based Education) Blues."

When he was honored last year as the Colorado Superintendent of the Year, Saul was lauded for educating the public and the state legislature about the dense world of education funding. He helped to form and still chairs the Colorado School Finance Project, which promotes equitable and adequate distribution of school aid. The task is made more difficult in a state whose governor and state education commissioner haven’t been viewed with fondness by many local school leaders.

Nancy Popenhagen, president of the teachers’ union in the Thompson schools, admires Saul for his skill at communicating the complicated. "He can break down [the jargon] into terms that help other people understand," she said.

Saul said he took on finance reform as a personal and professional crusade to prevent further undercutting of public education, which he views as a bastion of democratic ideals. "Our society tends to increasingly classify people--who has, who hasn’t, who does, who doesn’t. … Public education should help us keep from classifying."

One of his most satisfying days as a semi-regular in front of the legislature came during the 1996 session when he was invited to testify to a state Senate Education Committee hearing on a school finance bill. His primary antagonist, a powerful senator, already had given his testimony--full of what Saul viewed as inaccurate assumptions, faulty conclusions and cause-to-effect fallacies.

But fighting a debilitating case of the flu, the senator was forced to depart early, allowing Saul for once to convey accurate and credible information without being refuted at every turn.

Subsequently, appropriate amendments to the bill were introduced at 3 a.m., and as a result, the lowest funded districts in Colorado have been substantially assisted.

Saul likes to recall the episode as a career highlight, quipping, "I'll take the handicap every time."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: