Back to the Trenches


July 2001: I'm in my first month as superintendent of the Southeast Warren Community School District, a small rural district about 45 minutes from Des Moines. I've left my life as a professor at Western Illinois University, where I've taught educational administration for five years, to return to the trenches and be closer to family.

I'm so new to the district that I haven't found housing yet. My husband has remained behind in Davenport, Iowa, until we sell our house, and I'm staying with my son in Anken.

It's an exciting time in Southeast Warren, a time of optimism for the district and for me. A new primary center is nearly complete and a new intermediate school is in place. The high school is 30 years old but is spacious and modern nonetheless. This district has everything I had hoped to find: excellent facilities, strong community support for student activities, a board committed to improving learning, a sound budget, and a rural setting close to family and to the conveniences of Des Moines. The business manager is experienced and highly skilled, and at just under 600 students, the district is small enough for me to know every family.

Most of all, the district offers small-town living and a more relaxed pace than I’ve found in big cities or at the university. I look forward to living here and contributing to the community. This district is the place for me.

Cheerleading for Rural Life
The transition goes smoothly if quickly. During my first week on the job, I meet with each board member for an hour, and I realize the board expects change now. The first year isn't going to be a year to sit back and observe. Board members tell me, though, that I'm the person to address the changes, and they give me 100 percent support.

Even though I'm new to the job, I quickly develop a strong sense of who I need to be. I'm an advocate for small rural schools, and given Iowa's open enrollment system in which students can choose the district they attend, I constantly remind people that Southeast Warren's schools are a best choice for parents.

Early in the summer, I write a letter to the editor listing the advantages our schools offer. Our small class size means more individual attention and many opportunities to integrate character education into everyday lessons. Our all-day kindergarten helps students become ready to read. Before- and afterschool day care is available, and a full-time elementary counselor works with a team of support staff to ensure the success of all students. The district is opening its second new building, giving students the luxury of spacious new classrooms and state-of-the-art media centers. Neither private schools nor large school districts offer all these advantages. That's my message, and I deliver it every chance I get.
I send similar letters to parents who have opted to have their children attend another district, introducing myself and encouraging them to take a second look at our schools. I offer to visit with them in my office or in their home, and I tell them I’ll provide them with a personal tour of the district's two new schools.

Buses and Staff Training
As a former principal and central-office administrator, my strength has always been instruction, and I'm eager to work on these issues in Southeast Warren. But instruction has to wait as I put budget procedures in place across the district.

Transportation becomes an issue, too. Early in the summer, the director of transportation tells me he's unable to do the job because of his health. Then about a month before school begins, I find that only one of our buses passes state inspection. It’s a scramble to have a fleet of buses ready when school opens in August.

My transportation duties don’t end in August, though. For most of this first year, a wonderful crew of bus drivers reports to me directly. I hold monthly drivers' meetings, oversee route changes and set expectations for all drivers. My secretary and I get chauffeurs' licenses so that we can drive the school van, and I attend training to get my bus driver's license.

It's the same for food service. The board had decided not to continue the food service director's position, so I end up taking over that responsibility as well. (In a small district people sometimes just have to do what needs doing.) By the end of the year, new systems will be in place for both operations, but in the meantime, peanut butter and bus routes are on my daily schedule--something I never anticipated.

Soon, though, changes in teaching and learning become possible. Last year students sold everything from magazines to chocolate bars to raise funds for the prom and other activities. In fact, there were 28 fund-raisers at the junior and senior high school. Concerned about the time taken away from instruction, I announce plans to eliminate all but two fund-raisers as a way to increase learning time for students.

To make up for the shortfall, I appeal to parents and community members, telling them that if they want to support activities without buying something they don't really want, then they can take out their checkbooks and mail one contribution to the schools instead. By October, we've raised $2,360, and by the end of the school year, we'll collect $10,000.

We also begin a new kind of staff development. Instead of one-stop workshops on the latest trend, teachers now have the chance to take a graduate-level class on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year. The class addresses best practices in teaching, curriculum and student achievement, and in a throwback to my days as a professor, I am one of the co-teachers.

I’m also pleased that teachers will receive graduate credit from Drake University or continuing education credit for taking the course. Given the Iowa legislature’s new emphasis on teacher quality, I’m convinced such courses will become even more essential in the future. Another plus is that all of the other administrators, except the high school principal, attend the classes, and through this interaction we begin to come together as a team.

Teaching, of course, is at the core of what we do, and after New Year's I dig into the instructional program in earnest. I meet with a class of students each week and ask about their courses and how those courses might be changed to meet their needs. They have some excellent suggestions and some questions I can't answer. A few students stop by the office with additional questions for me. In retrospect, I wish I had started talking to kids on the first day of school.

After studying the high school curriculum, I begin drafting ideas for a new master schedule to increase class time and decrease the number of study halls. (There are 18 a week.) Electives are limited, and sports practices are scheduled in a way that cuts into instructional time. I look for solutions to some of these issues as well.

A Major Cut
I wish I could say that the first year was free of contention, but it wasn't. In mid-October, Iowa's governor announces a 4.3 percent reduction in school funding due to revenue shortfalls. And like other superintendents in Iowa, I immediately outline options for the school board, including freezing much of our spending, reducing hours for some employees, leaving unfilled positions empty, and asking building administrators to identify $5,000 more in savings in their buildings. I'm also realistic and advise the board that a reduction in force could be necessary.

In October, we quickly (and pleasantly) conclude negotiations with the district’s noncertified employees after I persuade the members to try interest-based bargaining. Negotiations with the teachers’ union, which begin in December, don’t go nearly as smoothly. I suggest interest-based bargaining--a respectful discussion where people come together as equals--hoping to minimize power plays and get people to work together.

But the union refuses to participate without training, so we begin traditional negotiations. A board member suggests that we make the best offer we can rather than go back and forth with proposals and counterproposals. “Let the offer be good for 10 days,” he says, “and if they accept it, we’re finished with bargaining and everyone is a winner.” So we offer $750 on the base salary, a larger package than other districts offer but something we have to do to move teacher salaries closer to where they need to be. Teachers approve the proposal and morale is good.

Shortly after we conclude negotiations, though, it becomes clear that we will need to cut 2.5 positions because of the loss of state aid. While that's better than the cuts facing many other Iowa districts, it's still too high. As I write in the local newspaper, any cut in personnel affects everyone in the district.
The school board meeting in March is extremely difficult. The administrative team has spent many hours looking for ways to trim operating expenses and still provide a quality education for students. And since the employees are valuable members of the staff and the community, the decisions are made with heavy hearts. Even worse, the union perceives my actions as unfair. On the one hand, they say, I've offered them a good settlement, but on the other, I've reduced their numbers. They don't accept the explanation that the reductions were necessary due to the loss of state aid and had nothing to do with the negotiated package. There would have been RIFs just to maintain the current salary schedule.

There's more tension and fewer smiles in schools, and the rumor mill kicks into high gear. It's difficult to stay focused on student success.

By year’s end I face another tough conflict as well. Based on performance issues I have documented throughout the year, I ask the high school principal to resign. He refuses, and I recommend that the school board terminate him. What should have been a private matter goes glaringly public. Students protest the action, and the press takes the principal’s side. Usually two or three people attend our board meetings, but at our mid-May meeting hundreds of people turn out. Only in July is the outcome clear: The principal resigns, but his supporters remain both angry and disappointed.

Looking Ahead
A full-fledged media circus isn’t the way I would have chosen to end my first year, but I’m not going to let that coverage overshadow our gains. Neither will I let it affect the year ahead. While improvements in the instructional program don’t come overnight, I am pleased that all the ingredients of the recipe are in place--district goals address student achievement, curriculum maps are nearly done, and even veteran staff members now realize that changes are going to happen.

The schedule has enough flexibility for improvements, and we’ve developed an improved staff development plan based on feedback from teachers. Finally, the district has a board mandate for instructional improvement and accountability across all levels.

Do I miss the university? Not really. I know how to raise student achievement, and with the support of the school board I am confident I can do it in a period of just a few years here in Southeast Warren. These are the trenches where I want to be.

Susan Garton is superintendent of the Southeast Warren Community School District, 1621 Tyler St., Liberty Center, IA 50145. E-mail: scgarton@se-warren.k12.ia.us.