Guest Column

As the Pendulum Swings

by MARLENE ZIPPERLEN


My honeymoon was over. That much was clear after a successful first year in a new school district. The results of the May school board elections forecast significant upheaval.

At the time, I admit I was completely unaware there was a contingent in the community that did not like change. All of a sudden the majority of the school board that had hired me specifically to bring reform to the school system was now in the minority.

As a result, I had to take a deep breath and quickly evaluate my current situation. After 20 years of success as an administrator, I discovered that all those years of focusing on positive solutions to enrich education for all children suddenly were not the criteria against which I was evaluated. The discussions no longer were about goals and benchmarks, but about hidden agendas and lack of trust.

I recalled a telling comment from a former colleague, who had been unceremoniously ousted from her superintendency. She said: "Everybody was for reform--until it started threatening people’s jobs."

Standing Firm

The next realization was my inability to stop the tide of misrepresentation, while maintaining my reputation as a professional, dedicated and competent administrator. You quickly realize that, in education, your reputation is the standard by which you are judged. It would have been easy to leave the school district and seek employment elsewhere. After all, the literature certainly indicates the high turnover rate for superintendents. Johnny Veselka, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, states that one fourth of the 1,047 school districts in Texas change superintendents each year.

I did not want to become a fatality. With the support of my family, we decided to stick it out. After all, I had only been in the system for 1½ years and the district was making progressive strides in all areas. Test scores were up, facilities were looking great, students were excelling at extracurricular activities and the district goals were being attained.

Once the decision was made to stay, I had to work closely with board members who did not want to establish a productive working relationship with me. The next two years were very difficult from the teamwork perspective. However, the district continued to do well in most respects.

Over this time, the silent majority that supported reform, that wanted a school system that would challenge students and that sought harmony in its governing board decided to come to the polls. What followed this show of support was encouraging. The negative elements were defeated, and the new board members sought to represent the entire community, not just a narrow contingent. They wanted to work with me to support the best education that could be had for the children in the school system.

Beating the Odds

The current board realizes that it serves as the vital connection between the public and the public education system. Board members actively communicate with members of the community, listening carefully as well as articulating the school district’s message. The board and I work as a team whose focus is improving student achievement. With this collaborative professional approach, our team of eight has eliminated the excessive bickering that only serves to undercut local change efforts.

The eight-member team has direction toward a shared vision. We have established an environment of learning together. We’ve found this joint learning leads to constructive change and to interaction that supports each other.

I now am in my sixth year as superintendent in the school district. At this point, I have beaten the odds. However, the challenge remains to continue building upon a foundation of trust. The district is developing a community of learning, and it is exciting.

Marlene Zipperlen is superintendent of the Clifton Independent School District, 1102 North Ave. N, Clifton, Texas 76634. E-mail: mzipperlen@clifton.isd.tenet.edu