Features

Staying Power

by BETTY MOLINA MORGAN

Management guru Price Pritchett says, “Produce more than you cost.” That’s been my mantra throughout my career. I have approached every job I've had with a sense of mission, urgency and high intensity.

That's why I think I was well suited for the job of interim superintendent in Washington County, Md., a post I took at the beginning of the 2001-2002 school year. And it’s why I’m staying in Washington County for the next four years as I believe my background is a great match for the district at this point in time.

After about six months on the job as interim superintendent, the Washington County school board chose me as the only finalist for the position. Here are some reflections on this year of change and challenge taken from the journal I kept.

Early Priorities
I’m a person who thinks a lot about the future. I’m always looking one, two, five, 10 years out so operating on a one-year timeline as interim superintendent makes me somewhat anxious. I know instinctively, though, that given the short amount of time I have, I have to ask board members to identify the most important things they want me to accomplish this year. Even though this is a temporary position, I want to leave it in better shape than I found it.

The board responds positively. They’re open to my ideas and appreciate my suggestions. They ask a lot of questions, are respectful of my expertise and, in a positive way, demand answers that make sense. Most important, they establish that they don’t want an interim superintendent who is going to mark time and preserve the status quo.

So after extensive discussions with board members, I propose seven priorities for the year that address the issues of communication; strategic planning and budgeting; school improvement; and the recruitment, development, rewarding and retention of staff. I’m certain these goals meet the board’s needs and will put the district and its permanent superintendent in an excellent position next year.

Being aware of the national research on the importance of the superintendent/board relationship and the district’s immediate history, I also place a high priority on communication with the board, the public, the press and the staff.

Other priorities also play to my strengths and the board's needs. People in Washington County are very fiscally responsible, and at $6,792 per student, our per-pupil expenditures are below the state average of $7,476. The median family income here is about $31,000 per year, and the average job pays minimum wage. Those economics make for a lot of mistrust of the school system, the likes of which I have never seen before.

Press coverage also fuels the mistrust of government bureaucracies, and in the past the local newspaper has printed letters to the editor that repeatedly criticize the school system. It is frustrating and sad for the children of this community who won't get ahead if adults don’t let them.

At the same time, the school system has used its limited resources well enough to position itself as one of the top systems in Maryland. In 2001-2002, in fact, we ranked sixth in the state on the Maryland School Performance Assessments even though our wealth is nearly half that of the districts that rank first through fifth. I admire the system’s work ethic and focus.

Not content to just accept the current fiscal restraints, I resolve to open up more revenue channels and leave the system better positioned financially than it was before I came. I have managed large budgets, such as in Baltimore City, where I successfully leveraged funds to boost student achievement and where we were successful at winning big grants to support our educational agenda. I hope to do something similar here this year.

Other priorities for the district involve improving academic programs, particularly for students who need alternative learning environments as well as gifted and talented students.

For all of the above and more, I establish a variety of task forces, work groups and action committees, and the board, the staff and I work extensively with each. I also make sure each group has a point person, and I insist on issuing a written report of each group’s work. There's nothing more frustrating than to work hard on a project and then just see it fizzle or not have follow-through. I am determined this won’t happen here.

Battling Resistance
Once the task forces are launched and priorities identified, I experience some resistance from staff members toward the changes I’m making and my intense push to accomplish the goals in a year. The resistance is subtle as well as overt--everything from a bewildered "That's not the way we've always done it" to outright resistance.

Since I’ve been a successful change agent at various times in my career, though, and superiors have purposely tapped me for such a purpose, this resistance isn’t a surprise. I know there is a delicate balance between taking time to involve all stakeholders (so that they will ultimately believe in the mission and want to carry it out) and taking so long that folks are lulled into believing change might never happen. I am stuck in this balance, trying to decide how hard to push. I ask myself: Is it fair to shake up the system during a one-year stint?

The board answers this question in part when it begins its search for a permanent superintendent and people encourage me to become a candidate. I hadn’t intended to apply for the position. In fact, I had made some commitments, to a university and to do some consulting work, so I wanted to leave my options open. The more I delved into the system, though, the more I realized its potential to achieve “world-class” status. And the more I became vested in ideas for the future, the more I became convinced I could really make a difference here.

Ultimately, I do apply, and while I have some moments when I have second thoughts about the wisdom of pursuing the same job I’m holding, I never change my mind about the system’s potential. I’m in an awkward position, though: I don’t want to appear to be campaigning with every move I make, but I do want to proceed with an aggressive agenda. I’m very goal-oriented with a clear sense of the mission that needs to be accomplished. I don't do as well when the goals get fuzzy or change in midstream.

Once I become a candidate, I notice that staff attitudes toward me change. Some staff members were complacent at first and clearly thought, “This lady will do her thing, maintain status quo and leave us after a year so we can relax." When they realize I could be here to stay and I might really shake things up, their attitudes shift.

Throughout the search process, I feel as though I’m walking a tightrope, but I ultimately stay true to myself and do what I think needs to be done for the system, regardless of my future in it. In hindsight, I don't regret this approach at all, and my actions position us well for the next four years.


The Power of Permanency
After signing a four-year contract in early February, I don’t change my pace but allow myself to picture the things I’ll be doing one year, two years and four years out. I’m now fully vested in the future of this community and its students. I’m also intent on bringing administrators and the community on board. I know that without the support to carry out our plans and ideas, we are sunk.

Another major challenge is putting a team in place whose members are committed to seeing that children receive an outstanding education and who aren’t simply content to preserve their own turf. I have seen this latter posture in every school system I have worked in. But after years as a change agent, I know that a leader can change a subordinate's behavior so that the appropriate energy gets directed toward improving education for students.

Whether passive or overt, resistance to what is good for kids always disappoints me. I accept it and believe it is my responsibility to get people to leave old attitudes behind and get with the program. I was able to do that successfully in Baltimore City and in other positions I've held, but I find that I’m more aware of how important it is to take action now, not later. I’m at the end of a long and productive career, and this is probably my last job in public education. I want to feel good about the final mark I make.

I’ve also seen the effect that years of neglect have on children. My time in Baltimore City brought that home to me. This isn’t private industry, where a company might have another year to turn things around. Children don’t have next year; they have this year. I’ve reached the point where I say, “This is going to happen now, “and I’m going to motivate people to get on board, to catch the fire, too.

With all this in mind, I take a calculated risk to change a variety of positions this year, shift roles and responsibilities and have talks with others about "embracing the agenda" and looking down the road instead of in the rear view mirror. So far, so good.

At Year’s End
Clearly, the year has not been without its rough spots. Overall, though, I’m satisfied with what has been accomplished. I still feel comfortable in the path I’ve taken, and I haven't encountered anything in the day-to-day responsibilities that I can't handle or don't understand.

The challenge is to get everyone on board with the mission. On that, we are making progress. Unless I'm deluding myself, people have begun to accept me and my ideas, and some even have become convinced that I hold the appropriate vision for the students of Washington County.

We still need a strategic plan that reflects our vision of a world-class school system and that will live in the hearts and minds of our constituents. As someone who has read widely in the field of leadership, I have chosen to embrace some of the quality leadership philosophy and taken an eclectic approach to best practices, tailoring what I’ve read and what I’ve seen in my years in schools to the situation here in our county. I’ve urged my administrative and supervisory staff, who number about 130, to be leaders rather than managers and make things happen for kids.

Finally, no one is more surprised than I am that a person who never really intended to become a superintendent has just completed her first year in that job. I willingly accepted the one-year assignment partly to see whether I had the temperament to be a superintendent and to see if I liked the role. I doubted that this would be something I would want to do beyond a year. But even when I have hit low points, I have never lost the sense that I could make a difference. Like a magnet, the idea that I could add value to the school system kept drawing me close every time I started moving away from the idea of permanency.

In retrospect, I sometimes think that perhaps this reluctance was a good thing. I came to the job very realistically, without arrogance and without expectation of a permanent future, so I didn’t worry about my survival.

Over an almost 32-year career in public education, I have observed both the best and the worst of superintendents and knew for myself what best practice was. I was truly in the position to do the right thing for the system.

Now I’m ready to take things to the next level. I welcome that opportunity, that challenge, that responsibility.

Betty Molina Morgan is superintendent of the Washington County Public Schools, P.O. Box 730, Hagerstown, MD 21741. E-mail: morgabet@mail.wcboe.k12.md.us