Feature

Superintendent Retirees: Final Observations

EDITOR’S NOTE: The concluding year of a lengthy career in school administration carries its share of emotional highs and lows. For those leaving the superintendency, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on professional accomplishments, the chance to recount one’s tangible impact on the lives of hundreds of fellow educators and thousands of school-age children over the years.

About 16 months ago, The School Administrator approached four superintendents who had announced that 2010-11 would be their final year of service before retirement. We asked them to track the year to capture some of the most significant moments along the way. At year’s end, each put pen to paper, composing a reflection of how she or he spent the final year in public education. Their essays follow.

Divesting Myself Over My Final Year

BY DORIS J. KURTZ

 

The Hopi Native Americans have a saying that impermanence is a fundamental fact of life. Thus, it is. Everything changes. Everything ends. I accept that.

 

As such, I approached the last year of my 10-year tenure as superintendent of the Consolidated School District of New Britain in central Connecticut with the basic premise of making the days count, not counting the days. New Britain is an urban district with high poverty and great diversity. The state’s second-poorest school district, it also is a place where historically the teachers’ union had a stranglehold that was largely self-serving.

 

Retiree_KurtzDoris Kurtz savored the final weeks of her 10-year tenure as superintendent in New Britain, Conn. PHOTO © BY NEW BRITAIN HERALD, NEW BRITAIN, CONN.

I tried to make the days count on two levels, emotionally and behaviorally. On the former, I sought to move from investing myself in the system to divesting myself. This was no easy task because I was so passionate about the work and the 10,400 students, staff and parents of New Britain. Having little money every year and forced to make program cuts and staffing layoffs required us to be creative and innovative to be progressive.

I had to oversee major changes and push people hard to ensure we succeeded. Yet, in divesting myself over my last year, I realized much of the stress I had experienced as superintendent came from emotionally investing myself in the work.

A Wearying Routine
Caring so much is exhausting. Being ethical is exhausting. Setting and establishing a vision and mission that are far removed from the current culture is exhausting, but ensuring they are operationalized and drive the decision making daily is the most exhausting.

Building positive relationships with a wide diversity of people and other organizations is exhausting because the quality of the school system so depends on the quality of its relationships, internal and external.

When divesting, you don’t have to build relationships because you are leaving the organization. Divesting is emancipating. But it also requires a lot of personal reflection and adjustment. You develop a strong bond with and love for the students, staff and community. You carry them in your heart 24/7. Now you have to let that go.

As my last year moved along, I found myself at many occasions where all of the changes over those 10 years were detailed publicly, forcing me to go down memory lane. I felt proud of all we had accomplished, never sadness. I would be going home to my family in Illinois, to be with those who occupied the greatest part of my heart.

It was an extraordinary year emotionally because of the overwhelming praise, recognitions, gifts and love showered on me by so many students, parents, peers, staff and community members. I felt loved and appreciated, and it was humbling.

Sustaining Victories
The second level on which I sought to make the final days count was behavioral. My primary focuses for the year were: (1) to sustain the hard-fought and hard-won changes achieved over the years; (2) to keep moving current programs, processes and initiatives forward; and (3) to help the transition to a new superintendent go smoothly.

Because the status quo never sleeps and stupidity never takes a holiday, ensuring sustainability is perhaps the most difficult task of all. But I began my tenure in 2001 with the goal of sustainability. Some of the key changes were challenging but important to sustain:

  • Using teacher qualifications over seniority when laying off teachers. This was a hard-fought battle I won in arbitration, but refusing to vacate the award during the last several rounds of budget cuts caused me great unpopularity with the teachers and, ultimately, their vote of no-confidence two months after I announced I was retiring.
  • Requiring all K-8 teachers to take math and literacy tests based on the state mastery tests for students. Teachers who scored less than proficient were mandated to take professional development in the areas in which they were not proficient, and I paid them for attending after-school training. Then they were retested, and a few were removed or prohibited from teaching in a content area because of low performance. I refused to back down. My premise was simple: You cannot and should not be teaching what you do not know. The quality of student learning is based on the quality of teacher learning.
  • Monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of professional development. This meant holding teachers accountable for effectively applying in their daily practice the training they received.
  • Expanding smaller learning communities.
  • Evaluating teachers and administrators effectively. We introduced a new instrument that holds staff accountable for improving student academic performance.
  • Ensuring the progress on college and career readiness for all students.
  • Managing and developing human capital.
  • Making ethical decisions all the time, not just when convenient.

Liberating Acts
That was my agenda. Others had their own. Some sought power and tried to use my departure as an opportunity for positioning themselves for the next year. Some sought to circumvent me and go directly to my assistant superintendent, who had been named the acting superintendent for the next year, and was a native son.

None of this was new, but it was greatly exaggerated because of the situation. No need for them to worry about their relationship with me because there was no need to continue building one. As a black female from out of state, I was used to this. It was an annoyance, but it did not define my experience as superintendent or my last year.

Power is seductive, and some could not resist taking a grab at it. While expected from some individuals, it was disappointing coming from others. But letting go, forgiving and forgetting are liberating and important for inner peace. I was able to do that because I was divesting, not investing.

In many ways, my last year was one of extremes, emotionally and behaviorally. It was a year that was surprising yet predictable, wonderful yet strange, exciting yet sobering, exhausting yet energizing. But most of all, it was loving, a two-way lovefest.

It was also a year of healing, expressly between the teachers’ union and me. Their new leadership was extremely kind, generous and complimentary to me. While I was feted so often and so lavishly throughout the year, it really represented a celebration of the entire school district’s contributions and our resulting successes. It was a privilege to serve the students, staff and community of New Britain.

It’s been said that life takes you to unexpected places, but love brings you home. And so it was with me.

Doris Kurtz retired in July as superintendent in New Britain, Conn.
E-mail:
doriskurtz@aol.com

Bumps Aside, Everything Falls Into Place

BY JOHN T. AYCOCK

Sometimes things just happen the way you want them to happen. Such was the case as I wrapped up 19 years as a superintendent and handed the reins of the Vacaville Unified School District in California to my successor in July.

The entire process went about as well as it could, beginning in May 2010 when I informed my school board in a closed session I would be retiring July 1, 2011, and ending with the heartfelt going-away events arranged by the district and community leaders in June.

The board members didn’t appear surprised by my announcement. I am sure there had been speculation. In fact, it didn’t take them long to throw out the name of someone to replace me at the helm of the 13,500-student district, which is part of a small city nestled among hills, orchards and farmland between Sacramento and San Francisco.

Retiree_AycockJohn Aycock (right) used his last three months as superintendent in Vacaville, Calif., to ensure a smooth handoff to successor John Niederkorn.

Given the state of the economy, the board members believed that the assistant superintendent of business and administrative services, who had been with the district for six years, was a logical choice. The assistant superintendent had been considering retirement, and this appointment might convince him to stay for a few more years to help navigate the district through these financially challenging times.

 

I couldn’t argue with their reasoning — nor did I want to. John Niederkorn was a great administrator and an effective school business manager; he knew the school district and was a likable guy. When I approached him about the possibility of becoming the next superintendent, he said he was interested.

 


But it was imperative the board cover all bases and follow a procedure for announcing my retirement and, eventually, selecting and announcing my successor. We didn’t anticipate problems, but a good solid plan for such a significant change is vital.

During the summer of 2010, I spoke with several of my retired colleagues to get their advice about what to expect and what worked and didn’t work as they executed their retirement plans. Their advice echoed my feelings: Stay focused, stay fully involved, spend as much time as possible with the students and savor all those “lasts.”

Staying on Course
In September, I began developing a transition plan. With the board’s approval, I sought assistance from a nationally recognized public relations specialist, Tom DeLapp. He provided strategies to ensure a smooth process, which I shared with the board.

These strategies included developing and following a timeline; naming a transitional leader from inside the organization to send a clear message about staying the course; examining the entire selection process; letting the community know the board was considering all options; and timing announcements appropriately.

DeLapp’s suggestions set the stage for a serious, detailed conversation with the school board about the transition plans. We agreed to follow the consultant’s proposal with a few tweaks to meet our unique needs.

In the Mode
In July 2010, I spent some time working on my last back-to-school breakfast for 1,200 employees. While I enjoyed offering this event each year, I was glad this was the last one for me. It had become a major production, involving dozens of business sponsors, state and local elected officials, musical entertainment and a nationally recognized keynote speaker. The planning required contributions from 40 staff members.

Another significant last was my final opening board meeting of the year. In spite of nearly two decades in the role, I always was a little anxious about board meetings because of the unknowns that can and often do arise, things that mess up a perfectly good evening. (As much as a superintendent prepares, sometimes there are those with ill intent who lay in wait to toss out a verbal hand grenade in the middle of a meeting. And you never really know from whom it’s going to come.)

I enjoyed an excellent relationship for seven years with my seven board members. We always were on the same page. But during my final year, the board membership changed and a couple of newcomers were out of sync with the board and more apt to disagree with district administrators. This bump in the road was not insurmountable, but it was disappointing after so many good years.

I read The Life Cycle of Leadership: How to Survive and Thrive by Stephen Uebbing and Mike Ford during my last year. The first thing you do when you become a superintendent, the authors say, is go into survival mode, heading off disaster and keeping your head above water. Then you move into creation mode, establishing new programs, hiring new people and making your mark. Finally, when you are ready to retire, you go into legacy mode, stepping back every so often to admire what good was accomplished during your tenure.

Toward the end of my tenure at Vacaville, I had to slip back into survival mode on several occasions to ensure the district moved forward. I walked into every board meeting not knowing if I would be supported or challenged. As someone usually slow to anger, I found myself a couple of times getting angry with individual board members — always in closed session.

With only a couple of months left before retirement, my successor and I jointly recommended the board hire an outstanding young administrator from outside the district to be the next principal at one of our large comprehensive high schools. He was a standout already and destined to be a great leader.

A couple of my board members wanted me to appoint an administrator from the central office to be the principal, thereby downsizing the central office. On the night of the vote, just as we were going into closed session, two board members stated they would vote no on the appointment. I was very upset a split vote might hurt this young man’s future. After a thorough discussion with all board members, it all turned out well for the administrator, but during that episode, I was back in survival mode.

Wheels in Motion
In October, the board approved the transition plan in a closed session, and I knew it was up to me to implement the plan in such a way that everything looked simple and logical to the internal and external public.

As Tom DeLapp had suggested, I formally announced my retirement in January. During my state-of-the-district address, I indicated the board and I would research the district’s options, including search firms, to look outside and inside the district for my successor. Between January and March, I completed that research and made periodic reports to the board with my findings. I also focused my attention on the business of guiding the school district — through school visits and lots and lots of meetings. During these times, I realized just how much I would miss interacting with the students, parents and staff.

In April, the board president reported the board had considered its options and had chosen an internal candidate. They formally announced John Niederkorn’s selection at the May 5 meeting. The community seemed happy with the whole process and supported the decision.

An assistant superintendent who had expressed some interest was supportive, as well, and I worked with the board to give her deserved recognition for her good work. Consequently, she was named the associate superintendent for the district.

Countdown of Days
By the spring, with the announcements and media attention behind us, my mind turned to helping with my successor’s transition.

As soon as you announce you are leaving, people begin asking if you are “counting the days.” It wasn’t until after the May board meeting, with graduation just a month away, that I really did start counting days.

But my work was not done. I had three things I wanted to accomplish:

  • Complete the evaluations of the principals and the assistant superintendents.
  • Prepare and deliver the superintendent’s message at all five high school graduations.
  • Successfully complete my last board meeting on June 17.

After my last board meeting, I used some accumulated vacation days and was out of the office the last two weeks of my contract. That gave Niederkorn time to get acclimated to his new position and start making decisions without worrying about my opinions. He moved into the Vacaville superintendency on July 2.

Looking back, I am pleased at the way the last year played out. I was ready to retire, Niederkorn really wanted the job, the board wanted Niederkorn, and other administrators who were interested in the job were OK with the final decision and the process we took to get there. Life is good.

John Aycock retired in July as superintendent in Vacaville, Calif.
E-mail:
jaycock1@gmail.com

Longfellow, My Father and Worries About the Future

BY EVELYN BLOSE HOLMAN

When I was 10 years old, my father offered me 25 cents just to memorize his favorite poems. I jumped at the offer.

As I leave the superintendency after 27 years, the themes of Longfellow, Emerson and Whittier still permeate my perspective — respect for work, respect for all fellow human beings and respect for the blessings of our country. These became the values that guided my personal and professional life.

 

One of the many stanzas of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Barbara Fritchie” reads “‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head / But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.” This became part of my vision for leading under pressure in school district positions in two Maryland counties and then New York over four decades.

 

Retiree_HolmanEvelyn Holman (center) ensured her legacy as superintendent in Bay Shore, N.Y., by helping to establish a foundation to support students with limited financial means.

Challenges Renewed
Seventeen years ago, as the new superintendent of the Bay Shore Union Free Schools, Longfellow’s poem “The Village Blacksmith,” with its message of respect and caring for community and children, came into play for me. The district had just suffered a teacher strike, a failed budget and SAT scores 200 points below the national average. The storefronts in own town, an hour outside of New York City on Long Island’s Great South Bay, were boarded up.

During the prior year, Gov. Mario Cuomo cut the education budget in midyear and sent schools into a tailspin as superintendents scrambled to save programs. Everyone in the community reeled.

My successor as superintendent faces many of the challenges I faced 17 years ago. New York’s new Gov. Andrew Cuomo slashed 2011 school budgets and blamed union pensions and high administrative salaries for draining funds.

Despite the difficult financial situation, Bay Shore is blessed with a remarkable degree of open communication and collaboration, an effective board of education, fine administrators, competent teachers and a cooperative union. Those qualities were important in my final year as difficult choices had to be made.

Attrition, rather than pink slips, meant the freezing of 100 positions. Responsibilities shifted and some teachers had to transfer to different schools or grade levels. The staff’s professionalism and the community’s culture of caring prevailed when the public passed its 17th consecutive school budget in the spring, a tribute to its trust in the local schools.

What the community seems to be saying through these supportive acts is: Protect our children, protect our programs, protect our staff. They are committed to protecting the community’s future. “The Future Begins Here” reflects more than a school district’s motto.

Personal Support
As I approached my retirement, I pondered Bay Shore’s future as well as my own. I plan to travel, but I also want our school district’s great progress over time to be protected. The new superintendent, despite experience and competence, faces many challenges. He will receive my support in a tough job that is getting tougher.

Can the school district, with its 6,000 students ranging from affluence to poverty, hold onto 22 Advanced Placement courses, an International Baccalaureate Diploma, extensive tutoring and college preparation and counseling? Can we continue our preschool programs, all-day kindergarten and summer school programs?

Consuming financial worries during my last year prompted me to consider how to protect our achievements and create a living legacy. In March, I announced the formation of the Evelyn Blose Holman Educational Foundation, which will provide financial support to Bay Shore students in their education pursuits. One goal is to protect students from funding crises that create chaos in their lives; another is to never forget that good schools emphasize students, not test scores.

I consider the foundation my way of giving back and saying thank you, while protecting our collective gains and ensuring the schools, students and community continue to shine.

Burnishing Faith
During my last year, Bay Shore named a street in my honor, and the school board placed my name on the high school auditorium. The numerous accolades, dinners, citations and letters from national and state political leaders, including President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, overwhelmed and touched me in a way I did not expect. The poems I memorized so long ago burnish my faith in my fellow men and women and in their ability to renew schools and community. Bay Shore did.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in “The Village Blacksmith” writes: “Toiling, — rejoicing, — sorrowing, / Onward through life he goes; / Each morning sees some task begin, / Each evening sees it close.”

After 46 years in education, all but four in administration, I think Longfellow captures my feeling best: “Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friends / For the lesson(s) thou has taught!”

I thank the great poet and my dad, as well, and I thank all of those who ensured that I would treasure my time in education.

Evelyn Blose Holman retired in July as superintendent in Bay Shore, N.Y. E-mail: HolmanEA@optonline.net

A Year With an Understudy

BY BRUCE L. MONTPLAISIR

My plan had been to retire from the superintendency of the 770-student Lewiston-Altura Independent School District in Lewiston, Minn., in 2010. Then, Roy Kryzer, the school board chair, called me while the full board was discussing options for my replacement. He asked if I would work through a transition year with Jeff Apse, the high school principal. This would allow Apse to become more familiar with districtwide operations, particularly the finances.

Retiree_MontplaisirBruce Montplaisir (right) spent the entirety of his final year as superintendent of Minnesota’s Lewiston-Altura Schools to prepare his successor, Jeff Apse.

Apse and I met with Kryzer to discuss how this arrangement would work. The three of us agreed on a transition process that would end up with Apse becoming the superintendent in July 2011, at which point I would officially retire.

 

The timing for a supportive transition seemed right. As the 2010-11 school year started, the district was finishing two construction projects. In June 2010, we started another project that replaced the entire heating, ventilating and cooling system as well as all the hot and cold running water pipes in the high school.

 


Some Dirty Work
When I returned to my office in July 2010, I was met with signs of “Welcome Back,” and “Happy Un-Retirement,” and a creative poster of a man with my face wearing a purple No. 4 football jersey (belonging to a certain pro quarterback well known in these parts who can’t seem to stay retired, despite his advancing age). My office was located in the high school, which had no running water because of the renovation, and I was so overwhelmed by this gesture that I ordered the most luxurious porta potty I could find for the female staff.

The heating, ventilating, air conditioning and water supply project was dirty and time-consuming, but it was something I was glad to get out of the way before my successor had to take over. With the pipes and ductwork exposed, I took Apse and Kryser on a tour of the building, so they could see what was being done. Most of the visible work was completed over the summer so running water could be restored for the fall sports season and the first day of school. Jeff attended the weekly construction meetings to familiarize himself with the process.

At the July 2010 school board meeting, the board adopted a resolution for bond sales to pay for the new boilers, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and officially appointed Jeff Apse as superintendent for a three-year term starting in 2011. I considered this the final step in leaving the school district in good shape with facilities, finances and an administrative structure that the community would be comfortable with.

In August, my bookkeeper, who had been with the school district for eight years, resigned to take a position near St. Paul. I ended up hiring my administrative assistant to replace her.

Kryzer, the board chair, had been concerned for years that the bookkeeper and I would leave at the same time. This transition year became the year for breaking in a new superintendent, bookkeeper and administrative assistant. I involved all of them in building the school district’s 2011-12 budget, and I am confident we have the right people in the right places.

Flying Alone
At 6:30 a.m. on the first day of school, I was at the cafeteria in Altura when the head of buildings and grounds called asking what to do about the picketers. The subcontractor for insulating the ductwork and pipes was nonunion, so a national labor union staged a protest. We didn’t have the gas turned on for hot water in the kitchen, and our mechanical contractors would not cross the picket line. I called our general contractor to remind him our contract said we would be ready to open when the school year started. Everything worked out, except that I didn’t get breakfast.

In September, we received the official notice from the U.S. Department of Education that the Lewiston-Altura Elementary School was named a nationally recognized Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. It made staying on an extra year even more meaningful.

Throughout the year, I had Apse accompany me to meetings of the state education agency and any other meetings generally attended by superintendents. He also participated in quarterly sessions for first-year superintendents run by the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

At the November board meeting, I told the board members I planned to be at the December board meeting and the January reorganization meeting but after that the superintendent-elect would represent the administration. Beginning in February, I met with Apse before each board meeting to preview the agenda and after each meeting to assess how the meeting had gone. Often he faced questions from board members about agenda items that I needed to address. He became aware of the need to be better prepared because most answers could be found in the board packets.

In late April, Apse told me he wanted to develop the May school board agenda himself. He was familiar with the process, but when the agenda was finished he asked if I wanted to proofread it. The bookkeeper and administrative assistant proof the agenda for me, so I saw no reason to change that practice now.

Weather Resistant
At graduation for the class of 2011, the board recognized me for serving the district over 12 years with a plaque and some embellished stories. The board chair told the graduating class they held the record for the fewest days missed due to weather cancellations.

That story reminded me of a 3rd-grade writing assignment one of the elementary teachers showed me a few years back. The student had written that he didn’t think they should hire any more superintendents from North Dakota. Superintendents should come from Iowa or farther south so the kids could get more snow days.

Having become a principal in summer 1975, I moved a few years later into central administration. The past year represented my 31st as a superintendent. There have been tough moments, but the good times make it all worthwhile. I have no regrets.

Bruce Montplaisir retired in June as superintendent of the Lewiston-Altura Independent School District 857, a rural district in Lewiston, Minn. E-mail: bruce4765@gmail.com