Coping With Extended Absence: A Superintendent's Succession

by KATE BEEM
In the fall of 2004, Jeff Jennette had a hunch that his Army National Guard unit might be activated. So Jennette, superintendent of the 1,000-student Breckenridge School District located just north of Lansing, Mich., called up his predecessor, Dennis Hagey, for advice.

Hagey had retired from the district superintendency three years earlier but still lived in the area, where his wife teaches.

Jennette, 39, told Hagey he might have to go to war, and the two discussed whether Hagey might be able to come back to the district in Jennette’s absence. Then just before Christmas, Jennette, a first lieutenant, got the word he would be gone by January. The two met on a Sunday, and Jennette brought Hagey up to speed on what had been going on administratively since he’d left the Breckenridge schools.

“And he just kind of handed me the keys,” Hagey says.

The school board agreed to Jennette’s plan, and he left soon after for training, finally heading for Iraq in April. He expects to be in Iraq performing maintenance on tanks for about a year, according to his wife, Sunday Jennette.

Jennette did what all good leaders should do, says Col. Tom Kolditz, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point: He planned for his own departure and succession at the helm, even if it’s only temporary.

“It’s any senior leader’s responsibility to succession plan, to plan for his replacement,’’ says Kolditz, who chairs the academy’s department of behavioral sciences and leadership. “When the deployment order comes, it’s too late. You should have planned. If you haven’t, you’ve already made a mistake.”

Or at the very least, made an already-hectic time even more so.

Smooth Transition
In the past, few members of the National Guard or the Reserve of the five military branches expected they would be activated for war-time duty. But with the advent of the all-volunteer military, the reliance on part-time soldiers has exploded. And with the United States at war in the Middle East, deployments are a given. Like other employers, public school districts are feeling the effects.

Transitions can go smoothly, even without planning, say officials with school districts that have weathered such events. Much of the credit goes to supportive school boards and administrators willing to return from retirement on an interim basis or to shoulder an extra work load to help a colleague fighting with the U.S. military overseas.

In the McMinn County School District in Athens, Tenn., David Pierce, a former director of elementary instruction, received the nod when Superintendent John Forgety’s Army Reserve unit was activated in 2004. Forgety, 59, a first sergeant in the Army, recommended Pierce for the interim post, and the appointment was practical and logical. Pierce knows the school system and had worked with Forgety in the eastern Tennessee district for several years. Still, Pierce required a lot of on-the-job learning once he started as interim superintendent. He dealt with contract issues, liability lawsuits and the development of a $30 million budget, not to mention the daily grind of running a 5,800-student school district, he says.

“It was baptizing me right off the bat, and I had to get with it,” Pierce says.

Now in his 18th month as interim superintendent, Pierce rarely turns to Forgety for advice, communicating with him sporadically through Forgety’s wife or the occasional telephone call from Iraq. But for other substitute superintendents, the instant communications the Internet and satellite phones afford has made filling in a little easier.

Information Limits
Those on the home front have to decide how much information they should share with school leaders who are performing their duties for the military abroad. In the Breckenridge School District, Hagey and Jennette discussed their strategies for communicating before Jennette was shipped to Iraq with his Army National Guard colleagues.

Jennette rarely calls Hagey, in part because it’s difficult to find the time to wait in line for the phone at his base in Iraq, although he does have easier access to e-mail, says Sunday Jennette, adding she hears from her husband about once a week.

Before Jennette left, Hagey assured him he wouldn’t impose his ideas on the district but would maintain the status quo in Jennette’s absence. But some matters Jennette “doesn’t need to be concerned about,” Hagey says.

“I cut a quarter of a million (dollars) out of the budget,” Hagey says, “but he doesn’t know about it.”