Board-Savvy Superintendent

Leading Change in Chewable Bites

by Doug Eadie

The strategic change portfolio of the Crystal Lake School District, a 26,000-student, inner-ring suburban district, consists of four major strategic change initiatives. These are projects to address high-stakes issues the school board, superintendent and her executive cabinet collectively have selected.

The first initiative is aimed at passing a capital construction tax at a special election 16 months hence, which is being spearheaded by a diverse task force consisting of business and community leaders. The proposed tax addresses the tremendous enrollment growth projected to continue for at least the next seven years.

The second is a year-long initiative to pilot test an innovative approach to parental involvement in the classroom in grades 1 through 4 in the Fernway School. This project, led by a steering committee that includes Fernway parents and teachers, will be implemented throughout the district if successful.

The third is a unique extension program being tested in collaboration with two large domestic abuse agencies that involves on-site classroom instruction at shelters.

The last is an innovative case management approach focusing on at-risk students that is being tested in three middle schools. It involves county social services and foundation funding, a steering committee of district administrators, teachers and county social services executives and school-county case management teams in each building.

Yearly Replenishment
The Crystal Lake Strategic Change Portfolio is replenished annually through a process that kicks off with a daylong board-superintendent-executive team retreat hosted by the board’s planning and development committee. National, state and local conditions and trends are examined and issues discussed at the November session. The executive team then recommends a top-priority list of 3-5 issues to the planning committee, which selects the ones to be addressed during the coming year.

Tackling an issue means to fashion one or more strategic change initiatives, using various vehicles: a district administrative and/or faculty task force; a district-community task force; a board task force for a board development issue; and on rare occasions a consulting firm.

The strategic change initiatives are managed separately from day-to-day operations as part of the district’s strategic change portfolio. As initiatives are put in place, they move out of the portfolio (often becoming part of the mainstream operating budget), and new ones are added. And every three years at the retreat, the district’s values and vision are revisited and updated.

A Polar Opposite
While Crystal Lake is a pseudonym, the facts and circumstances of its recent experience are based on an actual Midwestern school district.

As the district’s example illustrates, the strategic change portfolio approach is the polar opposite of traditional comprehensive long-range planning for arbitrary (and essentially meaningless) periods such as five or 10 years--which it is rapidly replacing in both the business and nonprofit sectors.

This dramatic move from comprehensive long-range planning with its weighty tomes to the more issue-driven, action-focused portfolio approach is based on four key assumptions that have been thoroughly validated in practice:

* Projecting everything your district is doing educationally and administratively into the future for three, five or more years in a rapidly changing world is a futile exercise that will fill shelves with little-consulted tomes. Also, it will impede strategic innovation, which will be buried by the weight of operational detail. The annual operational planning/budget preparation process is an excellent vehicle for taking command of district operations, and there is no point in trying to project it much beyond a year or two.

* Designing your district’s annual operational planning and budget preparation process to result in the identification and analysis of operational issues (e.g., increasing violence at athletic events; substandard performance in a building) will make it a major source of operational innovation. It also should be noted that a long-range capital construction project is essentially an operational matter and would not need to be managed through your strategic change portfolio. However, getting a levy passed to finance the construction would be another matter because it is high-stakes, complex and demanding of external participation. It is hardly amenable to business-as-usual management.

* Leaving certain issues that are highly complex and that involve high-stakes to the business-as-usual operational planning process would not make sense. These issues (usually in the form of challenges but sometimes opportunities, such as a major new stream of funding) can most effectively be identified in a retreat involving the board and top administrators, and the selection process can best be handled by the executive team working with the board’s planning committee.

* Finally, being highly selective is essential in dealing with strategic issues. The process is driven by the assumption that grandiosity is a vice in the real world. The great majority of public and nonprofit organizations, including school districts, are strapped for resources, both money and time, and are rarely in a position to tap a rich reservoir of unrestricted funds to apply to strategic innovation. In my experience, most school districts cannot hope to deal with more than three to five high-stakes issues during a given year.

Doug Eadie is CEO of Doug Eadie and Co., 4375 Wheatland Way, Palm Harbor, FL 34685. E-mail: