The Insider’s Advantage


It’s the opening day of school, and I’ll admit it: This is scary. At some level I’m responsible for everything. It was kind of nice when I could pass the buck, but now the proverbial buck stops here.

It’s the opening day of school, and I’ll admit it: This is scary. At some level I’m responsible for everything. It was kind of nice when I could pass the buck, but now the proverbial buck stops here.

At the same time, though, I’m clearly excited. I’ve spent 29 years in education, 13 of them here in the Pulaski schools in upstate New York, and I’m blessed with the opportunity to lead the district. As I look out over a sea of faces on opening day, I’m reminded of how I sat here, in the same spot, in 1972 with no gray hair, nothing hanging over my belt, and no eyeglasses, thank you very much.

I can remember the pride, the satisfaction and the fear of starting a new job. All of that comes back to me as I face the start of the new school year.

My Appointment
My story begins on June 1 when, after a lengthy executive session at a special meeting, the board of education announces my selection as superintendent. The appointment hadn’t been on the board’s agenda, and no contract had been negotiated. (It turns out that one board member wouldn’t be available at the next meeting, and the board wanted everyone to participate in this decision.)

The district has been working with an interim leader, a retired superintendent from outside who helped out for nearly nine months, and it had narrowed the field to two candidates--me and a principal from another district. Now I am the superintendent-to-be.

The board’s rationale is straightforward. When the board president announces my selection, he tells the press the district believes in promoting from within and says I have the experience to do the job. The comment is music to my ears. He also states that board members know they can work with me.

Oddly, my first task becomes negotiating my own contract, and I take the lead in making that happen. The board and I each have access to a set of generic superintendent contracts. I propose specific conditions in writing, and they respond, also in writing. I consult with the New York State Council of School Superintendents and with friends who were superintendents while board members have their attorney review the proposals. We take the discussion public later in the month.

Though I’m a month away from being official, I find myself quickly slipping into my new role. As an elementary school principal and coordinator of staff development and technology in a small district, I already have been involved in most of the district’s administrative activities, including budget building, negotiations, board meetings, executive sessions and committees. But I’m not as familiar with the revenue side of the budget or with many noninstructional and legal issues at the district level. I resolve to come up to speed quickly.

As my involvement in district issues expands, more information flows my way, and my opinions move from advisory to authoritative. I review copies of correspondence coming into and going out of the superintendent's office. I am consulted on more issues before decisions are made. Special interest groups begin lobbying me!

A Whirlwind of Activity
July 1: Today I officially start as superintendent, and one of my first acts is to cancel two days of scheduled vacation time. The time crunch has begun in earnest, and the three-day Fourth of July holiday won’t stretch into a five-day escape.

In the first week on the job, I miss a half-day work session with team members from the Superintendent Development Program I have enrolled in that’s run by the State University College at Oswego. (I started the program, which prepares candidates for school leadership positions, in January.) I don’t move into my new office. I continue to do my old job while responding to issues flowing into the new one. I also meet with my board president and vice president to set the agenda for my first official school board meeting.

On Day 3, a biggie: The regional superintendent for our area and his attorney walk into my office to tell me they are investigating charges of impropriety with regard to our administration of a New York State Regents exam. Specifically, a community member has filed a complaint with the state department of education alleging that the high school principal changed the results of a student’s test.

They tell me the student in question is my daughter.

After they question me, the three of us immediately march over to the high school where the BOCES superintendent and the attorney review documents and talk to the principal. They leave to continue their investigation by phone. I won’t find out until September what their findings will be.

Overall, July and August are a whirlwind driven by the fact that I am still doing two jobs. I clearly feel the advantage of becoming superintendent in my own district. I don’t have to meet people. I don’t have to find the bathrooms. I can go right to work, and my learning curve isn’t as steep.

The disadvantage is that I can’t walk away from my former position as principal. While I lead the search for three administrative openings (clearly superintendent work), I’m also involved in the search for teachers, teacher assistants and a nurse (clearly principal work).

I have a technical blip at my first board meeting: I think I’m giving them useful additional information in writing at that meeting, but I find I have actually confused things for them. I learn to give them nothing new at a board meeting.

I also spend a lot of time interviewing and checking references. The administrative appointments are made by mid-August as are all teaching positions. It is a lot of fast work, but it goes well.

Setting Goals
I also have goals to set. Contractually, the district has an advisory council for planning and staff development that is composed of staff and administrators. I work with this group for three days to define parts of a comprehensive plan for the district. Some of the group’s recommendations involve reviving past plans and reinvigorating things that have fallen by the wayside.

For the first time, though, a grassroots group develops academic goals for the district. The goals are apple pie and baseball. All students will meet or exceed New York state standards in all academic areas, and all students will participate in a character education program. But the people responsible for making such things happen clearly have ownership in the process. That hasn’t been the case before.

The school board OKs the academic goals and adds some goals of its own, including financial stability for the district and increased emphasis on maintaining our facilities.

Working with a group I call my leadership team, I establish two more-immediate goals. First, we need to look at the kinds of academic interventions we provide for kids who need help beyond the regular classroom. Second, we need to pay more attention to what our data are telling us about student achievement.

I’m fully aware of the irony of the last goal. As a principal, I believed in the power of data-driven analysis, but with the crush of crisis management that is the principal’s daily life, I’ll admit that I never did that job well enough. Too often I moved it to the back burner. But what I didn’t do well as principal, I’m now making sure gets done as superintendent.

Board meetings are also going well. Board members seem willing to let me be superintendent as long as I keep them informed and stay on top of issues. They clearly don't want to hear that I don't know about something or haven't done something. We achieve a milestone when the board vice president tells an irate parent at a board meeting that the parent needs to meet with me before the board will consider the issue. In the past, board members would have attempted to gather information and solve the problem right on the spot.

As the school year speeds along, we plan and deliver new teacher orientation, develop implementation plans for a new school-based health clinic, and propose and implement new programs, positions and services. I establish an expanded working relationship with our local newspaper reporters. And after hiring a new elementary school principal, I move out of my old office, putting closure on that job and those working relationships, all of which is more sensitive than if I had left the district.

During all of this, I attempt some vacation time, move my first-born child into her freshman dormitory at college, enroll in another phase of the Superintendent Development Program and sign up for a series of workshops called Fiscal Navigation for Superintendents. I attend the state association’s new superintendents conference, take a board member to the new board member conference and face a choice between attending a school boards conference and going to my daughter's first Parents Weekend at college.

Visiting my daughter wins.

Highlights and Low
By Thanksgiving, it’s clear: I like what I do, and I have the ability to keep lots of plates in the air. I like solving problems, which, it turns out, is a good thing because I spend a lot of time keeping things on track. My confidence helps me sail through the winter months. I have my share of preoccupations, though:

* The district is winding down a $7 million capital project, and I spend a fair bit of my first four months (and beyond) solving problems with the renovations and additions that have been made to the high school.

The interim superintendent saves me. He has signed on as interim business manager to tide me over until I can hire someone on my own. (In a small district like Pulaski, the business manager will be crucial to my life, my success and my overall happiness.) There’s no question in his mind that I’m superintendent. He provides the information; I provide the decisions.

I realize quickly that if he had gone out the door July 1, the capital project would have buried me, if not on knowledge, purely on time. Without his counsel, I would have had to move instructional issues to the back burner.

* I meet weekly with the administrators as a group and I visit individual administrators frequently. This practice keeps me informed and allows me to influence their direction and practices. Our maintenance and cleaning departments are in need of significant change--it is a district goal, in fact. The business officer oversees the change (the department reports to him), but I spend a fair amount of time directing major changes, which some staff members welcome and others fight. We begin a work-order system and the use of time clocks, and we hire consultants for efficiency reviews.

I find that making changes in people’s routines is best done slowly. First of all, we are always flying the plane, so the work of the day prevails. Secondly, systemic change is more permanent when done thoughtfully, tactfully and with a vision. My strategy for working with the groups closest to me is to move them one behavior at a time toward my vision. This is the tactic I apply to the district as a whole.

* With shortfalls in state revenues, it’s a challenge to build next year’s budget, but working with my new business manager (yes, I’ve now hired one) and with consultants, we’ve been able to renegotiate service contracts and insurances to trim our expenses while maintaining our academic programs.

Tenure Contentions

Spring brings the most challenging public moment of my first year. The troubles had begun in September when officials involved in the investigation of the Regents exam determined that our principal’s actions on several test papers were inappropriate and recommended some oversight for a year. (The principal had used the wrong criteria in awarding some points.) They didn’t ask the district to fire him, though, and they didn’t suspend his license, which they surely could have and would have done if the circumstances merited such actions.

Once the investigators handed down their findings and the board and I took action, I naively thought the issue was over and behind us. My interim business official (the retired superintendent) knew better and told me it would resurface. He was right.

In January, I receive a Freedom of Information request from a community member for copies of the state documents. When my board president talks with the person making the request and explains the board’s position, the community member withdraws the request, satisfied with the information he has received.

In February, I receive another request for the same information from two other people, and I meet with them to discuss their concerns. At this point, another issue arises: They tell me they are seeking my support to deny tenure to the high school principal this spring--a new principal, but a 24-year veteran of the school system.

I share information about the actions we’ve taken in the wake of the Regents controversy, but I do not waver on tenure. The two then write to each board member seeking their support, but board members tell them there is little chance that tenure will be denied.

Shortly after that, a newspaper article appears quoting their outrage over the high school principal and their intention of addressing the board at the next meeting. One board member is also quoted expressing displeasure. I then receive another Freedom of Information request for 10 years of scholarship winners along with the names of board members and administrators. The theme is favoritism.

Curiously, the newspaper article actually helps. Nearly 200 people attend the next board meeting, and the vast majority support the principal. During the public comment period, the chief spokesperson for the party that’s opposing tenure attempts to interrogate board members, but the board president stops him and keeps people focused on making comments. Both sides speak for about 45 minutes, and then I take my turn.

I apologize for the district, but I try to put the action in perspective: This is a competent, dedicated principal whom I continue to support. My statement seems to turn the tide. Fifteen minutes of positive comments follow. The board votes that evening and approves my formal recommendation for tenure on a 6-1 vote. The crowd cheers. That night and later, I receive praise for my forthright leadership.

Unfortunately the saga continues. The one dissenting board member and a handful of community members are still dissatisfied, and while they don’t seem to be gaining support, they have talked to a number of people in the community. One of the major critics even ran for a school board seat this spring, though he was defeated by a wide margin. And while the community easily passed our budget--always a sign of support--there is a faction that is not with us. I still wonder what the lasting fallout might be.

Looking Back
Overall, though, I have had a great first year. I feel I’m well ahead of schedule in effecting change in the district. The in-house relationships, the knowledge and the history I have as an insider have allowed me to capitalize on leadership during this honeymoon year.

My working relationship with the board of education has developed more quickly than I expected, and I have lots of evidence that board members trust me. Relationships with the unions are positive, multiyear labor contracts are in place and the capital building project is basically complete. Administrators are working hard, and we have money in the bank. Life is good. With some luck, next year it will only get better.

Marshall Marshall is superintendent of the Pulaski Academy and Central School District, 2 Hinman Road, Pulaski, NY 13142. E-mail: mmarshal@pacs.cnyric.org.