A Matter of Trust: My Quick Transition to the Superintendency

With no 10-step program in hand, a newcomer finds relationship building to be Mission One by JASON M. ELLINGSON

In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey identifies trust as the one thing that, if missing, will “destroy the most powerful government, the most successful business, the most thriving economy, the most influential leadership, the greatest friendship, the strongest character, the deepest love.”

When the Creative-Moniker School District (not its real name) hired me to serve as the middle school principal and K-12 curriculum director in 2006, I had no idea that, within a few short years, lack of trust would be a major cause of the downfall of a school system leader. It also would play a significant role in my rapid ascent to the office of the superintendent, where I would be challenged to heal a wounded district and move its students, staff and community forward.

Jason EllingsonJason Ellingson (left) dons a cape created by a high school senior as part of his effort to connect with students during a period of transition in school leadership.

Creative-Moniker is a small, close-knit district that serves 520 students in two schools: an elementary school and a middle/high school. As I settled into my position as the district’s curriculum director and simultaneously provided leadership at the middle level, I began to see myself as a change agent. Every decision that affected the district I framed within the context of our board’s goals for student learning.

Eye to the Future
When I accepted the position at Creative-Moniker, I had just begun my superintendency certification program at the University of Northern Iowa. With only one semester of classes completed, I was concerned about having a strong practicum experience at a new school district.

The superintendent, whom I’ll call Dale, immediately put me at ease by committing to a strong superintendent-internship experience for me. In fact, on my seventh day at work, Dale came into my office to discuss his plans for tenure, for retirement and for a transition. He said he knew I was a good fit for the school district and that I would be able to guide the district forward. When the time was right, he said, he would retire and I could move into his role with the board’s approval.

I was impressed and amazed. Seven days into my new position, and I was already being prepared for my next job. I was excited by the prospect and honored that Dale saw in me the potential to be the district leader. I was determined to learn from him and to ask as many questions as possible, so I’d be prepared when he decided it was time for the transition.

From that point, I began to see myself as an “associate” superintendent, working with Dale on financial matters and learning how to run a district. We spent a lot of time together discussing personnel matters, political issues and budget concerns.

Settling In
I was not as concerned about the financial bottom line as I was about the impact of decisions on the students and staff. I pushed issues forward, and Dale often pushed back. He was most concerned with the cost to the district and the potential to change established traditions and routines. My focus was on student learning.

For example, Dale and I struggled with professional development for staff. I was always on the lookout for conferences and workshops that would increase the capacity of our staff to be more effective instructional leaders. Dale was concerned about cost and whether the right people were going.

Dale and I also had issues with our budget. Dale wanted to put everything toward salaries so we’d show a strong bottom line at the end of the year. I wanted to allocate money for programs and materials.

Despite our disagreements, Dale and I had a great working relationship. We enjoyed our respective roles and appreciated having the other as a buffer. I wanted to hear his concerns about the costs of my latest project, and he liked discussing how we could improve the lives of our students.

I did not doubt that Dale was deeply committed to the students. He was a high school student sponsor, attended most athletic, academic and fine arts events and truly got to know the students through his work with the community.

Beginning of the End
During my tenure as middle school principal/curriculum director, I noticed drastic differences between Dale’s leadership style and my own. I am a risk taker and a “big picture” person who tries to see as many perspectives as possible. Dale was a manager, someone who focused on numbers and supervision. He was more comfortable creating spreadsheets and supervision lists than inspiring those around him with words or action. He focused on maintaining the status quo rather than moving forward toward excellence.

Dale was a good person and a good manager, but many in the district considered him a weak leader. An increasing number of staff confided in me they were unable to work for Dale because he gave the impression he didn’t trust them. Who can be a leader without followers? With each passing month, Dale was losing followers among his staff. I found myself putting distance between us as well.

By November 2008, staff members’ concerns about Dale’s leadership — his style, his sometimes-overzealous concern with the financial stability of the district, his unwillingness to think long-term about how to move the district forward and his negative interactions with staff — were serious enough that I shared those concerns with the board president. He agreed to address them at the next board meeting.

At the board meeting that month, as promised, the board president opened a discussion about concerns he had heard throughout the community about leadership. The other administrators shared that staff morale was low, and I suggested that the reason for the poor climate might be lack of vision and guidance. The president also shared that administrators were unhappy they were not trusted to supervise their staff members. They were required to consult Dale before making any staff-related decisions.

We did our best to address the leadership-related issues, but after 45 minutes of discussion, we concluded the board meeting without having resolved anything related to the staff members’ problems with Dale and his lack of leadership.

The Final Straw
For three months, we heard nothing more from the board of education about the concerns we had raised that fall. I decided to focus on my job and not think about it anymore. But in February, Carter, the high school principal, told me he could no longer work with Dale and had accepted a job with another district.

Many of the staff suspected that Carter’s leaving had everything to do with Dale. I tried to convince them that Carter simply was looking for a new challenge and that we needed to finish the year strong and support Carter’s decision. They didn’t buy it.

The district staff (minus administrators) held several meetings to vent their frustrations. At the end of the second meeting, three staff members asked to speak with me. I listened as they shared a list of concerns about Dale. As I feared, the staff believed Dale was the sole cause for Carter’s departure and they thought that if Dale left, Carter would stay and, because I had my superintendent’s license, I would move seamlessly into Dale’s position.

The teachers were uncomfortable going to Dale with their concerns, so I agreed to speak with the board and with Dale. The board president was out of town, so I shared the teachers’ concerns with the vice president. He told me he had received several calls from teachers and would speak with the board president that evening to develop a plan to address the problem.

A Call for Resignation
The next morning I was at school by 6:15. Dale was already in his office and came down 10 minutes later to tell me he had spoken with the board president the night before. He wanted to talk with me about the situation with the staff.

I knew I had to be upfront with Dale. I owed him that much. So I told Dale that, with Carter’s departure, he had lost the trust and support of the staff. We talked for a while, and then he said wanted to speak to the staff. I warned him they would be hostile. He thanked me and left. However, that wasn’t the end of it.

March was filled with meetings between the board president and Dale, Dale and me, the teachers and Dale, the teachers and the board president and finally the board president and me. One Friday night, the board president called to say he had polled the five-member board and all agreed to ask Dale to retire. They also agreed to ask me to step into Dale’s position. The board recognized I had a vision for the district, the passion to move us forward and the respect of the staff to lead them.

At the beginning of April, Dale announced his retirement. He reflected on the good he had done in the district, the changes he had made, the events he had witnessed and the joys of living each day as our superintendent. He concluded with a brief statement indicating the district would be hiring a new high school principal to replace Carter and that I would be taking over as superintendent. Dale bowed his head, thanked the students and staff and encouraged us to end the year strong.

Before he left his office for the last time on June 26, Dale reminded me of things I needed to do in July and showed me where the important files were. He did not give me much advice in terms of how to be a leader, but he did give me pointers on how to be a manager. He cautioned me to be wary and tough on those who had “sandbagged” his efforts for change. He reminded me that a few employees did not like to work, did not like to take orders and did not like him.

The Next Chapter
On July 1, 2009, I became the superintendent of Creative-Moniker School District, overseeing student achievement, staff professional development, community relations, finances, buildings and grounds and the myriad other duties that come with district leadership. However, one duty was clear and paramount in my mind: Rebuild the trust of the staff by focusing on relationships.

I began my tenure with the same open-door policy I had as a principal and curriculum director. I reminded people that while the title and time commitments changed, my personality had not. In fact, I asked a few trusted colleagues to form an advisory council for me. Their task to this day is simple: Call me out if I begin to act differently than in my previous four years in the district.

I spend a lot of time in hallways and in classrooms talking with the teachers. I always make time to listen, even if there isn’t time. I also let the staff know that I value their perspectives and welcome their input.

Iowa was hit with a 10 percent across-the-board spending cut in October 2009. I went straight to the staff for ideas. I reminded them I was not interested in budget cuts as much as I was in funding our priorities. The staff members appreciated that approach and offered suggestions, many of which we implemented. By focusing on priorities, our staff was reminded of our vision and mission, making it much easier to reduce the budget.

It may take months, even years, to rebuild the trust in our school district. No easy answer or 10-step program exists. It takes heart, soul and time. It takes resiliency, resolve and respect. It takes a leader. I hope I am the person the students, staff and parents in my district can trust to lead and to follow.

I long have believed that leadership is about finding and fostering relationships with people. Financial shrewdness and curriculum expertise are nothing if you cannot work with people. I never wanted to be a dictator, to have ultimate power. I always have preferred to have influence. Influence is harder to obtain than power. It requires people to believe in you, to respect you and to trust you.

Jason Ellingson is superintendent and curriculum director for a small school district in Iowa. E-mail: jasonellingson@yahoo.com