Feature

Rookie Superintendents: Four Personal Reflections

EDITOR’S NOTE: The first year of one’s superintendency is a year like no other. Even those educators who’ve worked for years in the wings fulfilling high-level duties in the central office find one eye-opener after another when they alone are at the top of the organization’s leadership ladder.

At the start of the summer in 2010, The School Administrator invited four school leaders who were about to embark on their first superintendency to participate in a writing assignment. They agreed to keep notes or a personal journal of significant interactions and developments throughout the 2010-11 school year. At year’s end, each prepared a reflection of how their rookie season transpired. Their accounts follow.

Upfront Visits Pay Off Through Tough Moments

BY DANIEL BITTMAN

 

One might think that superintendents who begin their contract in July can take time gradually to get established, develop a transition plan and meet school and community stakeholders throughout the summer. This was not the case for me.

 

Almost immediately upon accepting the position of superintendent in Sauk Rapids-Rice Independent School District 47 in April 2010, I busily connected with the district’s incumbent superintendent, administrative team and other staff while fulfilling my existing school district responsibilities elsewhere.

 

Rookie_BittmanDan Bittman regularly visits students as superintendent of Minnesota's Sauk Rapids-Rice School District.

I had spent the previous 11 years in the 310,000-student Clark County School District, based in Las Vegas, Nev., as a teacher and administrator, ultimately serving as director of elementary personnel for 186 elementary schools. Sauk Rapids-Rice School District, a rural district in central Minnesota, offered an exciting opportunity to work and live in a community committed to taking care of its 3,800 school-age children.

Predecessor’s Expertise
The transition was hectic yet exciting. I worked closely with school board members, facilitated several board meetings and hired an elementary principal and early childhood director within the opening weeks. I also reassigned two principals for the following school year, which created some angst but ultimately turned out to be a wise decision.

I was fortunate to follow an outstanding superintendent who had worked in the district for 16 years. He was well-liked, dedicated to service and committed to providing quality programming. He built and maintained a foundation on which all students, staff and community could succeed. His leadership and expertise were invaluable.

I learned quickly that Sauk Rapids-Rice employees considered every child their own and seemed willing to do whatever it would take for children to be successful. This often involved providing additional resources, time, housing or a listening ear. Each staff member served multiple roles.

Revealing Perceptions
Prior to the first official day of school, I developed a comprehensive entry plan with my predecessor that included more than 75 individual meetings with students, parents, staff, administration, school board members, business leaders, clergy, elected officials, media contacts and directors of various service organizations.

Through these meetings, I learned about perceptions of the school district and what people expected of student achievement and the need for additional resources. They shared their beliefs that the district had outgrown the small school/community feel, that school personnel make too much money when they work only part of the year and that community tax dollars often are spent foolishly.

Relationships formed during those first few months played out importantly over the year. Some of those early connections were extremely helpful as I addressed major budget shortfalls, reallocated dollars to expand programming for at-risk students and considered going to the voters for an operating referendum. After much deliberation, the school board decided to bring a modest $1.6 million referendum to the voters this November.

These individuals provided support and guidance as I dealt with the death of a student due to a terminal illness; an early morning bomb threat, which I later discovered was called in by a parent of a child in the building; an incident in which a student brought a weapon to school; and an emotional situation relating to alleged racial harassment. Stakeholders seemed comfortable communicating with me throughout the year and often sent e-mail or stopped by my office.

All of these contacts ultimately led to better-informed decisions. In turn, I continued to reach out frequently. Decisions about whether to run an operating referendum campaign, possible changes to the school calendar and the use of new technology were made collaboratively.

Highs Forever
I appreciate my previous experiences in school administration (all of them in larger organizations, including an assistant commissioner’s post with the Minnesota Department of Education). I am grateful to be a superintendent of a school district with 3,800 students and just six building locations, yet was surprised about the number and frequency of formal and informal outside activities with which I was expected to be involved.

These included attendance at meetings of the Chamber of Commerce, the VFW, Lions and Rotary clubs, two city councils and the state Legislature. At other times I would get involved in recognition ceremonies, community celebrations, natural disasters and crises affecting students and their families.

I have experienced highs that will stay with me forever and challenges that have forced me to evaluate who I am and what I believe. I have worked incredibly long hours, stayed up many nights watching the weather to determine if school would be delayed or canceled, laughed, cried and cheered frequently.

While marked by ever-increasing challenges, the superintendency is a privilege and an honor. Much was accomplished in my first year with plenty of support from others. We launched all-day, everyday kindergarten; integrated ActivBoard technology districtwide; provided continuous professional development in literacy, math and technology; implemented a new math curriculum; and raised achievement in math, reading and science. I also believe we made learning fun for our students.

Despite the pressures, the time commitment and the occasional heartbreak, I realize and value the importance of this position and the chance I have to change children’s lives forever.

Daniel Bittman is superintendent of Sauk Rapids-Rice Independent School District 47 in Sauk Rapids, Minn. E-mail: daniel.bittman@isd47.org


A Surprise Start to My Career Goal

BY YVONNE D. JEFFERSON-BARNES

Dreams quite often occupy the “I wish …” compartment of our subconscious selves. As time passes and circumstances change, we may be forced to modify or even discard them. In my case, however, it was just the opposite.

I long dreamed of becoming a school superintendent and saw that dream become reality on July 1, 2010, when I was selected superintendent of Williamsburg County Public Schools in Kingstree, S.C. Located in the state’s low-country region, the largely rural district serves nearly 5,000 students.

I walked into the position with plans to begin one-on-one interviews with staff members, only to learn that the week I began coincided with the school district’s mandatory vacation period for administrative staff. The fact that most administrative personnel were off gave me an opportunity to get to know my secretary and begin moving in to my office. Once unpacked, I began assimilating information that would assist me in understanding the specific needs of “my” district.

Rookie_BarnesYvonne Jefferson-Barnes signs her contract as superintndent of Williamsburg County, S.C.

A Recurring Comment
Prior to interviewing for the superintendent’s position, I had taken the time to visit the district’s schools. (At the time, I was working as assistant superintendent for instruction in Sumter County, S.C.) The mental notes I had made at each of the 13 sites I checked on served me well when the director of maintenance and I drove around every building and followed up with comprehensive walk-throughs.

 


The board and administration had done an excellent job of keeping facilities clean, safe and operational. The schools had state-of-the-art technology, with computers in every classroom and computer labs. Most rooms had interactive smart boards.

The one recurring theme in my conversations with district and community leaders, teachers and parents was the aging condition of facilities, most built in the early 1950s. Air conditioning and heating units were outdated in some, and wiring was insufficient to accommodate additional technological demands.

Schools in remote areas had weak communication reception, so we had to increase broadband capacity and rewire those buildings, meaning funding had to be found. While a short-range facilities plan was in hand, we agreed the next step in the comprehensive strategic plan was to improve facilities.

This process led to consolidation of two elementary schools and development of a state-of-the-art magnet school. We plan to hold a referendum in 2012 to support construction of new schools across the district. The amount hasn’t been determined.

A Rating Challenged
My ongoing evaluation consisted of a longitudinal review of student performance; certification reviews of all personnel; curricula reviews; a salary study; and a review of the system’s organizational structure/staffing patterns, including financial assessments and legal updates. I expected to address all of these needs but was surprised by the degree of personal involvement required to bring each area into compliance.

For instance, the district’s overall performance status, as rated by South Carolina’s school report card system, had been designated “at risk.” My review of the district’s in-house data indicated the state’s designation was inappropriate. We immediately brought in consultants to help us determine whether accurate assessment information had been submitted to the state department of education and to provide training on data use at every staffing level (administrative, instructional, noninstructional).

With a system of checks and balances in place to review data entry and a better understanding of the state’s coding system, our school district’s rating moved from at risk to average during the year.

Financial Strains
Fiscal matters also needed my attention. The school district was straining financially as it sought to maintain programs previously supported by federal funds or grants that were now depleted. Moreover, the state had significantly reduced per-pupil allocations, at the same time the county was experiencing declines in the student-age population. Extreme cost-saving measures were necessary — immediately. And they had to be done while attempting to maintain staff morale!

My choices were few. Clearly, furlough days and reductions in force had to be instituted. In a county where the school system serves as the primary employer, informing staff they soon would be unemployed was not something I relished. In addition, with backing from the district’s lawyers, we trained principals on the use of a rating scale as the basis for staffing reductions. The scales were supplemented by a comprehensive review of personnel records and interviews.

Individual meetings to explain the process helped to reduce the level of anger and backlash. No one was pleased to learn about the impending loss of a job, but staff members understood why it had to happen and could see the fair and objective nature of the process.

The district also worked diligently to help employees affected by the job cutbacks. We contacted neighboring districts to identify vacancies and directed staff to job retraining sites. We eliminated dual employment for staff to maximize employment opportunities for those affected.

Legal Flurry
The greatest surprise to me was the significant number of pending lawsuits. Almost every other day, it seemed, paperwork about a lawsuit crossed my desk. Most were three or more years old, and the litigation covered the full spectrum of the school system’s population — student safety; termination of employment; job transfers; facilities; student and employee harassment, etc. It became increasingly evident how litigious everything in education has become. The days of talking through problems and using negotiation and mediation to resolve disputes are diminishing in number.

Of course, I knew educators had concerns about the ways they might approach students, parents and even peers to express concerns, gratitude or encouragement. Even the smallest act of kindness could be misconstrued as harassment or an inappropriate or improper interaction.

During these difficult economic times, the preference that insurance companies settle cases rather than risk an unsuccessful legal fight seems to generate even more lawsuits. I imagine some plaintiffs see the possibility of securing even a small monetary payout through a lawsuit leaves them with more than they had.

First Priority
I liken the events of my first year as a superintendent to that of climbing mountains and slaying dragons. The mountain climbs have been energizing, and I have been joined on them by able, competent, willing staff and school board members. The dragon-slaying ventures continue. Multiple lawsuits are pending and the reductions in workforce have left effective employees without financial resources when they need them most.

As a caring, concerned and involved education leader, I see the children of my district as my first priority. However, I cannot forget that a number of them are the children of employees who now must find other ways to support and care for them.

With an extensive background in administration and leadership over my 32 years as a professional educator, I appreciate that the role of superintendent is not for the faint of heart. Daily, I pray for strength, understanding, wisdom, guidance and the ability to remain focused on why I sought this position: It’s about the children and their future! Dreams not excluded.

Yvonne Jefferson-Barnes is superintendent of the Williamsburg County Public Schools in Kingstree, S.C. E-mail: yjbarnes@wcsd.k12.sc.us


The Unexpected: A One-Year Tenure

BY JAMES “DAN” SHALLOW

As long as I can remember, I wanted to teach high school history and coach basketball in a small school. I was fortunate in that I actually achieved that goal, albeit 20 years after I graduated high school with 16 classmates in Pittsburg, N.H.

In the intervening years, I enlisted in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, where I ended up staying for 20 years, a period that shaped my leadership and management philosophy. During my Air Force career, I served in many education and leadership roles, developing curricula and teaching strategic leadership and planning. I became a recognized “expert” in total quality management. I earned a master’s in public school education and a second M.A. in public school administration.

I learned early in my military career that people were my most important asset. No matter what I wanted to accomplish personally or professionally, it wouldn’t happen without the support of my people.

 

Immediately upon leaving the Air Force, I entered public education. I spent two years teaching high school social studies, then moved into my first principalship, a position I filled for 11 years at four schools.

 

Rookie_ShallowDan Shallow had a military career before assuming the superintendency in Groveton, N.H.

In March 2009, the three boards that make up New Hampshire’s School Administrative Unit 58 appointed me as superintendent. SAU 58 enrolls about 500 students in four buildings and three districts in the towns of Northumberland, Stark and Stratford. But within a few months, I found being a superintendent, at least in this administrative unit, to be much different than I anticipated.

Board Shifts
While the unexpected tends to become the expected, some situations prompted me to question my rationale for becoming a superintendent. While torn in different directions, I was determined that professionalism would be the watchword of my tenure.

I learned quickly that changes in the board’s composition can complicate a superintendent’s life. Within days of signing my contract, a former budget committee member was elected to the five-person Northumberland board. A second former budget committee member was appointed a few days later to replace a veteran board member who was relocating. The two new members voted together on nearly every financial issue. Even before my first day, I could see that budget matters would be all-consuming.

A year after my appointment, the Stratford board underwent its own radical change. A former board member, aligned with a group seeking to send students in grades 6-12 to Groveton High School in the next town on a tuition basis, won back a seat in a landslide. The overwhelming passage of a warrant article, a legal process that allows townspeople to put decisions to a general vote, put the public on record to tuition the high school students to Groveton High School.

Two other Stratford board members preferred to study the consolidation proposal, but bullying by a few vocal community members pushed them to support the tuition contract. One of these board members received a threatening letter from a local taxpayer about making his next year “a living hell” if he didn’t immediately approve the proposal. That board member resigned.

With the two remaining board members unable to agree on a replacement, the Stratford Select Board, the town’s governing council, appointed a replacement to ensure a three-person board. When another board member resigned, the two remaining board members appointed the taxpayer who had sent the threatening letter as his replacement. He was the only person who applied for the vacant position.

A Pro-active Aim
With my position reporting to multiple school boards, I ran into some clear conflicts of interest. The Northumberland board, seeking to increase revenue, wanted me to recruit students of neighboring Vermont districts who already were enrolled in the Stratford school. I was expected to do this without first informing the Stratford board.

In an attempt to be pro-active, I urged the Stratford board to meet with the two other boards in our area to discuss possible consolidation moves. The board told me my recommendation was premature because the voters of Stratford already had voted down a tuition proposal by a 2-1 margin.

Again, in a pro-active effort, I suggested the Northumberland board contact the Northumberland Teacher’s Association to start the contract negotiation process as early as possible. The board decided it would let the teachers’ association reach out to it first.

I found it challenging to work effectively with two governing boards with such divergent attitudes about creating a student tuition agreement — particularly when neither was receptive to advice obtained through our attorney.

Confronting Negativity
Two minor issues over the conduct of board meetings also demonstrated the difficulty of some things I considered common sense and rather routine.

As a building administrator, I always opened staff meetings with the sharing of “positives,” so I thought this would be a good opportunity for board members to say something upbeat about the schools. Two of the boards agreed to this as an agenda item, but the third balked with one board member even stating in public he didn’t have anything positive to say about the school.

Sometimes, even board meeting minutes became contentious. Because by nature the minutes of these meetings tended to be brief, I suggested the boards videotape their sessions to use for later reference in case in-depth documentation might be needed. None of the boards supported this idea.

Personal Reassessment
During the winter holiday break, I started to assess my sanity. The first day back from vacation, I said to myself, “Why am I doing this? I don’t really enjoy this, and I don’t see any degree of appreciation from the boards or the public.”

I saw how the state and federal government spending cuts would affect the schools and how they made budgeting a nightmare. I saw an increased emphasis on teacher and administrative accountability but little effort to hold students or parents accountable. I also found myself heavily involved in a bitter conflict between an administrator and a board member where each hired a lawyer.

By mid-April I decided I had reached the nadir of a mediocre career in education. I didn’t enjoy what I was doing anymore. At that month’s meeting, I notified the three school boards of my desire to retire and requested they release me from the two remaining years of my contract.

I really wish the last year of my education career had been more rewarding. No one likes to leave a position with a bad taste in his mouth. Of all the recent decisions I have made, the one to retire was the best. I departed on June 30 and expect to regain my sanity any day now!

Dan Shallow retired as superintendent of School Administrative Unit 58 in Groveton, N.H. E-mail: shallow_james@yahoo.com


Where Do I Find the ‘Pixie Dust’?

BY ANNETTE C. GIAQUINTO

The position of CEO superintendent is more than a vocation. It is a calling.” This quotation, from the 2005 book The Superintendent as CEO, sums up the journey I’ve taken from a little girl who played school in her home basement to the woman who now is superintendent of a 3,500-student school district in a diverse southern New Jersey community.

Rookie_GiaquintoAnnette Giaquinto, superintendent in Galloway, N.J., shares a book with 5th graders during Read Across America Day.

For me, this wasn’t just a calling to the position in general but to Galloway in particular. Since the district, which serves preschool through 8th grade, operates only one middle school, my years as middle school principal gave me familiarity with the entire community. This connection was advantageous, even a blessing, in my first year, but it also carried some disadvantages.

 


When the board of education voted in May 2010 to appoint me as superintendent, the response from the audience at the meeting was quite positive. Conversely, the timing of my appointment came in the midst of one of the most difficult periods in the history of public education in New Jersey. Some people who know me well jokingly commented, “Should I be offering congratulations or condolences?”

Due to significant reductions in state aid, our budget needed to be reduced by $7 million. Of course, the only way to reduce that amount is through cuts to programs and personnel. At the time of the budget development and vote, it was known my predecessor was retiring and I would be assuming his spot. As such, I was actively involved in determining the reductions, responding to parents upset about particular cutbacks and advising staff members in every category they no longer had a job. Especially difficult was telling teachers who had been my students when I was the middle school principal they no longer had a job.

The reductions also had a major impact on me. I insisted my position as assistant superintendent not be filled. When board members argued against this and asked how I could do this, I said knowing the district as I do and working with a strong team would make this challenging but doable. The board honored the reduction, which preserved other positions.

Immediate Remedies
For years I have posted a saying on my office bulletin board: “People may doubt what you say, but they will all believe what you do.” My efforts to live up to this have come to light, creating high expectations for what I can accomplish as well as supporting me through challenging situations.

Setting high expectations brings forth positive results. However, sometimes others’ expectations of you are unrealistic. On several occasions, I found myself in conversations with administrators or teacher-leaders who had identified things they believed needed to be remedied. They were convinced that as superintendent I could fix them and do so rather quickly. Of course, this was not always the case.

I’d say, in response, things such as, “I appreciate your confidence in me, but I don’t have a magic wand to wave and fix all the ills of the district,” or “I hear what you are saying, but I can’t sprinkle pixie dust and instantly make that happen.” Because I had an excellent relationship with these staff members, my comments led to open discussion. Their feedback indicated they felt heard and understood my viewpoint. Still, their comments haunted me. I wondered whether I was working hard enough but not smart enough. Maybe I should have been tougher in setting expectations for the administrative team. Did I really have the ability to do this job (especially without an assistant)?

While superintendents hired from outside the district may harbor these same questions, their past service does not connect to the new position as it does for those promoted from within. As I enter year two, I continue to reflect on what I now call the “pixie dust principle.”

Valued Relationships
My reputation, built on the connection between actions and words, served me well. What most clearly illustrates this is the string of events following the defeat of our proposed $55 million operating budget. In New Jersey, when voters reject a school budget, the town council has the right to approve the budget as proposed or reduce it. The prevailing relationship between school board and town council typically drives the resolution.

This is the political aspect of the superintendency in a high-stakes, public situation. Although discussions over the budget began positively, a problem arose between the school district and the council. Suddenly, I found myself publicly defending not only our budget but my own integrity, as well. At two meetings of the town council, I spoke about our budget and what adjustments could reasonably be made. I directly addressed the feeling by some council members that the board and I had lied to them.

Once I faced the council head on — with a number of supportive administrators, teachers and parents in the audience — the problem was resolved. In the end, the town council only made reduction amounts suggested by the board and me. Later, I was advised privately that the trust people had in me, based on my reputation, was a key factor in the resolution.

Staff members, parents and community members seem comfortable approaching me. This is a positive aspect of promotion from within. When I visit schools and classrooms, teachers will share success stories, ask me for advice about a student and invite me to read to or work with their classes. This helps me remain connected to the children and see our programs in action.

At the same time, my approachability can be a detriment. Staff members sometimes contact me with issues, problems and questions that normally would not be brought to the superintendent. I’ve had to carefully redirect these individuals to the appropriate administrator. Because I want to help people and solve issues, I find it difficult to turn someone away. Doing so, however, maintains a respect for my fellow administrators and upholds my belief that problems should be solved at the lowest level possible.

Fulfillment Ahead
My first year in this job moved at warp speed. While there were moments when I wondered if I made a mistake, I know in my heart, mind and soul I made the right decision in becoming a superintendent and in remaining committed to Galloway. My experiences have extended my growth professionally and personally.

Although challenges and lessons lie ahead, so do opportunities to make a difference, giving me a chance to fulfill my calling. ?

Annette Giaquinto is superintendent of Galloway Township Public Schools in Galloway, N.J. E-mail: GiaquintoA@gtps.k12.nj.us