Guest Column

Snoop, Supe and the Pippin Seven

by THOMAS HARVEY

Harmony between a school board and its superintendent is critical for the success of the school district—even though the relationship often resembles the singing of a musical round.

The board starts with “Row, row, row your boat” with the superintendent joining in a few notes later. The resulting harmony is unique because everyone is singing the same song, just at different times. Distinct harmony is reached when the themes cross. However, along with the harmony comes dissonance. And the round, if properly performed, concludes with only one voice singing.

Favorite Tunes
Sabine Pass Independent School District, a small system in east Texas, passed the superintendent’s torch in 1998. Early in the relationship, the board and superintendent discussed roles and responsibilities, collectively defining responsibilities in hiring practices, curriculum and other matters.

Metaphorically, the team of eight decided who would sing what part in the ensemble. The group’s name, for grins, was “Snoop, Supe and the Pippin Seven.” The goal was not to sing rounds but to perform different roles at the same time in harmony. To illustrate this dynamic harmony, here are descriptions of a few major hits from the group’s Top 10 list.

A country tune titled I Don’t Want to Live This Way No More.”
This song describes the sad state of school district facilities, which were falling apart. Yet townspeople express sentiment for an old building that has served them well. Some raise concern about taxes. But in the end the board submits a bond issue to the public, which joins in on the final chorus and passes it overwhelmingly.

The board had an aggressive agenda. The trustees proposed a $10-million bond issue shortly after hiring the superintendent. The proposal was to tear down a 60-year old school and replace it with a new facility. The board also realized that simply moving the school from one building to the next without organizational changes would not be sufficient but wasn’t sure how to proceed.

The board asked the superintendent to secure assistance from a professor at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. Thus began a relationship that strengthened the harmony between the board and superintendent.

The consultant helped to clarify the board’s vision. The board trustees valued the leadership of the superintendent and the input of the adviser. They examined options and visited other districts to see examples. The superintendent harmonized with board members by focusing on implementing their plans.

The adviser was a silent partner and provided input to help the ensemble. His contributions never treaded on the day-to-day operations.

A tune titled “We Settled This Territory Years Ago.”
This song describes teachers who settled into their classrooms years ago. In the winter of their careers a new superintendent asks them to use some new classroom techniques to bring about improved student achievement. Many decide it’s time to move on. However, the tune ends with happy retirees riding into the sunset.

This song became a hit because the district met the challenge of showing its appreciation to experienced staff by creating a program to reward retirees. The program also recruited new enthusiastic staff. The superintendent assessed personnel practices and developed a plan that set up a financial trust for staff members. The trust allocated funds to attract newcomers, rewarded valued teachers who were retiring and purchased accumulated sick leave from remaining staff.

The board members needed to feel confident that the interests of the revered staff were being considered. The adviser worked directly with a staff committee on developing recommendations. The superintendent’s role involved reviewing and approving the recommendations rather than selling the components of the plan. This approach worked well.

As the relationship between the superintendent and adviser strengthened, so did the relationship of the board and superintendent. The superintendent’s annual evaluation reflected the board’s approval of the use of outside experts.

Final Selections
The remaining Top 10 hits are a collection of jazz tunes with the lyrics of each depicting a distinct problem.

The No. 1 chart-topper, “Serendipity All Over Again.”
The jazz concept allows for improvisation because the fundamentals of harmony are so well understood that it expands the roles of all contributors. The board-superintendent relationship develops into a powerful and effective coupling.

The board trustees began their relationship with their superintendent with uncertainty. They kept focused despite occasional dissonance. The collective reward for the board was stability and progress by the school district. Routinely, the superintendent was the soloist of the ensemble, while the board provided backup vocals. All viewed solo numbers by board members as inappropriate.

The adviser was an old pro who had limited expectations from the relationship. His intention of assisting the district on a single facility issue grew into a practice of mentorship for the superintendent.

The harmony worked because the board had a vision and stood together as an ensemble. The superintendent had an adviser with foresight and experience and used board input. Lastly, the repetition in style created a strong local fan base and appreciation of the ensemble by the community audience.

Thomas Harvey is superintendent of Sabine Pass Independent School District, P.O. Box 1148, Sabine, TX 77655. E-mail: docharv@esc5.net. Elvis Arterbury, a former superintendent, is a professor of educational leadership at Lamar University and a school district consultant.