Profile

Personal Image, Public Results

by Jay P. Goldman

Sometimes it’s the tiny gestures and not the sweeping actions that say the most about a leader’s operating style.

Soon after Rick Dare, a social studies teacher for more than a quarter-century in Gillette, Wyo., was asked to serve on his school district’s new child health task force, he received a call from the superintendent’s office. Richard Strahorn was in his first year as the superintendent of the expansive Campbell County Public Schools.

“He called to set up an appointment with me for 7:30 a.m. in my classroom in my building in order to explain what this committee was about,” Dare says. “He drove 45 minutes through construction, which said a lot about him right there. Anytime a CEO of an organization would adjust his own schedule to meet someone in the trenches ... it showed he values teaching time.”

That seemingly insignificant scenario probably would have been long forgotten in Dare’s mind were it not part of a pattern of behavior he and others have observed regularly over Strahorn’s two-plus years at the helm of the 7,600-student system in Wyoming’s northeastern corner.
When Campbell County’s two high schools opted to hold their commencement ceremonies at the same time last spring, Strahorn resolved his personal conflict over favoring one of the schools by asking his wife to represent him at the one he couldn’t attend. “It was a little touch that meant a lot,” Dare says.

For Strahorn, a native of Midwest City, Okla., public image is paramount. That’s not to say that his professional actions are short on substance, but Strahorn does pay special attention to his personal style — to the extent he’ll make a 550-mile road trip to Salt Lake City twice a year to see a favored tailor for a resupply of finely crafted dress shirts and suit jackets.

Generally low-key (his current school board president calls him “a Southern gentleman”), Strahorn has entered his 20th year as a superintendent, over which time he’s refined collaborative decision making to a fine art.

In Sweetwater County, Wyo., where he previously served for nine years, Strahorn found his mobilization skills tested from the beginning. Only a month into the job, the school board informed him of a $2 million shortfall in the current budget and offered him the choice of cutting operating expenses to fully close the gap or to wage a mill levy campaign, knowing voters had twice rejected proposed tax increases in the previous four years.

Strahorn opted for the levy but left nothing to chance. “I had to put out all the negatives from the last election,” he says, especially the dire warnings issued by an array of utility company managers and coal mine operators, the county’s biggest employers. He spent his opening months introducing himself to the community while soliciting their votes. The result was a lopsided victory by a 3-1 margin.

Then a few years later, Strahorn successfully orchestrated the closing of half of the district’s 10 primary schools to deal with declining enrollment.

“What I really liked about him,” says Grant Christensen, Sweetwater’s board chair at the time, “was he made no big decision until he’d heard from all interested parties. He never closed the door to his office.”

In economically robust Campbell County, the superintendent faces an unusual challenge for a school system in the nation’s mid-section — student enrollment increases. In doing so, Strahorn will have yet another chance to engage the community, a genuine strength.

“My philosophy is, if a radical change is needed, you can do the work before and be upfront about it or you can make the change and do just as much after,” Strahorn says. “My preference is to do all the legwork upfront and get all the questions answered first. I’ve found success with that model.”

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org


 

 

BIO STATS: RICHARD STRAHORN

Currently: superintendent, Campbell County, Wyo.

Previously: superintendent, Sweetwater County, Wyo.

Age: 61

Greatest influence on career: My brother, Jack Strahorn, a former superintendent, was a mentor for me at every step during my career. He was my older brother and was always a step or two ahead of me on the professional ladder. I sought not only his friendship, but also his sound advice, and I can state that he has been a large part of my success.

Best professional day: The day I was hired for my first superintendency. I had prepared for that day by climbing the career ladder one step at a time, which had included positions as a teacher, counselor, assistant principal, building principal and assistant superintendent.

Books at bedside: The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman and Five Regions of the Future by Joel A. Barker

Biggest blooper: During my first year as a superintendent, the district was studying a difficult construction issue over the course of several board meetings. I put an action item on the agenda, hoping for board passage. At the board meeting, following much discussion, the chair finally called for a vote. Caught up in the moment and wanting it to pass so badly, I voted “aye” for the project! I didn’t have a vote, of course, and have not had one since.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: AASA is the only professional organization dedicated to the superintendency and is a means to stay connected to my colleagues. I am appreciative of the work done by AASA on a national level for members.