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A Bagful of Tricks in Fort Bend

by MARIAN KISCH

Tim Jenney faced every superintendent’s worst nightmare this past spring in his fifth year at Fort Bend, Texas, Independent School District: an unflattering appearance on YouTube. Someone had produced a video that superimposed the educator’s head on that of a pimp who then proceeded to sing a rap song. The video, of course, went viral.

 

The 300 staff members who attended Jenney’s next administrative meeting had seen the video — and as a result, the atmosphere was tense. But instead of hiding out, the superintendent faced it head on. He walked in wearing slick sunglasses and a full-length red leather jacket, his hat cocked to the side. He launched into a rap. It took the crowd a minute to figure out who was standing in front of them, “and then they roared,” Jenney recalls. “It put everyone at ease.”

 

Profile_JenneyTim Jenney

Humor, including laughing at himself when appropriate, is just one of the tools in Jenney’s bag of leadership tricks. Tight discipline and flexibility are others.

Jenney determined he wanted to be an elementary school principal by the time he was 28, a goal achieved one year early. Throughout his 38-year career, he has set specific professional goals, with timelines, and says he has met them all.

He’s held the top school district job six times in five different states. Of his climb to larger and more complex school systems, Jenney says: “I spend a great deal of time and effort keeping the left and right hand working together and communicating with staff. I also view my role as a teacher of leadership and organizational values. And I’ve learned that the success of our organization depends on thinking about systems and creating a school system rather than a collection of schools.”

The Battle Creek, Mich., native thought early on about pursuing a law degree, but while flipping through an airline magazine, he noticed an ad for an executive MBA program. “I thought this might give me a competitive edge,” he adds.

With that added credential, Jenney spent a year as vice president of a small university in Virginia Beach, Va., before landing his present post at the 70,000-student Fort Bend district south, southwest of Houston. The MBA, he says, has been especially useful in relations with the business community, allowing them to talk with common lingo.

Jeff Wiley, president of the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council, appreciates the transparency Jenney has brought to the community regarding the process of building an annual budget, which last year amounted to $488 million.

Jenney says his career has been built on discipline, in terms of raising the bars of expectation. “I try to do it in a supportive way, but I’m also brutally honest. It’s all about being able to stick it out, to adhere to ethical standards and do the best you can for all children.”

Last year, for example, the students in a high poverty school did poorly on the state tests. Jenney had a heart-to-heart talk with the principal, who admitted she needed to do better. Jenney said, “I will forgive you once.” Using Jenney’s support and resources, the principal led her school to “recognized” status this year and received kudos from the superintendent.

Jenney admits he’s flexible — “to the extent that different folks need different approaches.” Sometimes he’s stern and tough-minded, other times he’s more like a coach and still other times uses a combination of the two.

Under Jenney’s leadership, the district has gone from one to 25 exemplary schools under the Texas recognition system, and all schools have met adequate yearly progress. Fort Bend won the National District of Character award this year for promoting understanding and tolerance.

Jenney, 59, plans to stay in Fort Bend for five more years and then teach college for another five. But still he leaves open the possibility of getting his J.D.: “You never know; I may yet want to practice law.”

Marian Kisch is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. E-mail: mariankisch@verizon.net

BIO STATS: TIM JENNEY

Currently: superintendent, Fort Bend Independent School District, Fort Bend, Texas

Previously: vice president for corporate and governmental relations, Regent University, Virginia Beach, Va.

Age: 59

Greatest influence on professional career: Al Leibert, my former teacher, coach and confidant from 7th grade through 12th grade, still coaching in his mid-80s. He is tough-minded, has exceptionally high expectations and is one of the most caring individuals I know.

Best professional day: While superintendent of Michigan’s Parchment School District in 1986, we allowed our high school students to create and run a bond issue to build a new running track. With our assistance, they worked their way through the legal components of the process and presented their case to the school board and community. The students’ bond proposal passed with a large majority.

Books at bedside: Leadership Promises for Every Day: A Daily Devotional and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, both by John Maxwell

Biggest blooper: I accepted an annual courtesy parking pass from the city manager for free airport parking, and I used it on a job interview. It was discovered through an open records request, and while the list of users was long, my name ended up at the top of the list. Once again, I learned nothing is free!

Key reason I’m an AASA member: AASA has a rich history and a national voice to represent school administrators. The organization provides an overarching advocacy for a noble profession that is otherwise generally undervalued.