The Principal Advantage


Assess first, then build on strengths.

That’s the approach I used for 15 years as a middle school principal. It’s also the philosophy I used in my first year as superintendent in the South Hamilton Community Schools, a small rural school district of nearly 800 students in central Iowa.

In fact, when I talk to colleagues about my experiences this first year, I tell them honestly that being a principal prepared me well. It taught me the importance of developing a good relationship with students, staff, parents and community members. And working in a district that emphasized best practice gave me a strong understanding of staff development, curriculum planning and the use of data to make informed decisions. My new district’s size--roughly that of the middle school I left in Ames--was also an advantage.

But my first year in South Hamilton didn’t pass without new insights into leadership and the nature of effective schools. Here are some thoughts that stay with me.

Getting Grounded
My wife Chris and I attend the Jewell Jubilee celebration in early June 2001. (Jewell is one of the four communities in the district.) On Friday night, the school board president and his wife invite us to join them at a Main Street barbecue where we meet school and community people. On Saturday, we serve as parade marshals and then have lunch at the Lion’s Club stand in the park. This is a good opportunity to get acquainted with our new community and meet people before I begin my job.

By the end of the month, Chris and I move from Ames to Jewell and settle in the president’s house of the old Jewell Lutheran College. The school district owns the two-story home, built in 1908, and several other South Hamilton superintendents have lived here.

Though I’m not the official superintendent quite yet, I meet with the administrative team regarding plans for the fall workshop schedule for teachers. A day later, the district’s retiring superintendent provides me with an excellent summary of the state of the district. He calls it his alphabet-soup memo, and it covers everything from A (athletics) to W (weekly events). He briefs me on decisions the district made last year and on the people I might turn to for help. Under N (negotiations), he explains that the board and the teachers’ union always have had a good working relationship. Fortunately for me, that relationship will remain strong this year.

July 2 is my first official day on the job. To help my transition into the district, I plan to touch base with as many people as I can--teachers, administrators, students and members of the community--and ask them about their perceptions of the school district. I have used this approach before as principal, and I’ve told my school board I’ll use it again. (See related story.) As part of the entry plan, I send letters of introduction to all staff members, and during the first few months on the job, I meet individually with every teacher and administrator who responds.

I also learn the importance of keeping everyone in the loop. In early July, we have a special board meeting to discuss how to allocate our district’s share of the $40 million the state legislature has provided to enhance teacher salaries in the state, and I invite the union’s chief negotiator to the meeting.

The legislature has provided each district with funds and has specified a formula for allotting the money to first- and second-year teachers and to any teachers with three or more years’ experience who still earn less than $30,000 a year. But it’s up to the board and the association to determine how to allocate any money that remains after that. I contact another area superintendent regarding his district’s approach to the teacher pay proposal, then spend over an hour developing different scenarios. Eventually we will decide to distribute the money according to the existing salary schedule.

This month, too, I meet with the pastor who is in charge of the local ministerial association to discuss the relationship between the school and the local churches. The ministers traditionally have provided breakfast for the staff one morning during our fall workshop, and we agree to establish the date for this year. He also invites me to introduce myself at the group’s next meeting.

August is also a month for community building. A community group meets this month to address the questions I’ve posed as part of the entry plan, and the two-hour session goes well. About 20 people attend, and there’s lots of positive feedback. People say they appreciate being part of the process and having the opportunity to provide input.

One morning before the school year begins, I tee off at 6 a.m. and squeeze in a round of golf. Jewell is a delightful small town. Two board members even stop at the house after a board meeting to see how Chris and I are settling in.

September 11
South Hamilton is a good district with people whose expertise and sense of the community I value. That trust comes into play during the Sept. 11 tragedy. That day, as news of the events at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon unfold, students at our combined middle school and high school stay glued to TV sets and teachers use the situation as an opportunity to teach about history as it occurs.

But that evening, volleyball games and the homecoming coronation are scheduled. We have to decide. On the one hand, we believe that the school routine must continue. On the other, we feel it would be difficult for people to celebrate the events scheduled for that night. I ask the principals how they think a decision to postpone the activities will play out in the community. When they say it would be well received, we reschedule the events, notify the board and contact the TV and radio stations.

In the meantime, the school day continues as best it can. We decide not to tell the K-4 students about the tragedy so they won’t become afraid. Students in 5th and 6th grades are told about the attacks and watch some scenes on TV while teachers talk about the situation with them. Middle schoolers and high schoolers watch intently throughout the day. Walking through the building, I can literally hear a pin drop.

The next day we open school by raising the flag then lowering it to half-staff. Three days later, on the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, we hold classes as usual. Middle school students and high school students open the day with a moment of silence while the elementary school students gather on the playground for the national anthem and the flag raising. We ring the school bells just before noontime, and precisely at noon the high school Fellowship of Christian Athletes holds a brief ceremony at the flagpole for all students and staff who are interested.

Our actions show that despite the horrible events of Sept. 11 we will move forward as a nation and as a school district.

Cuts and Negotiations
During the fall, I attend several workshops on what data districts must file with the state and how districts must comply with the Legislature’s new teacher-quality initiative. (Like other Iowa districts, we’ll provide first-year teachers with mentors this year.) Though I’ve been a principal for 15 years in two different districts, I’ve never been involved in negotiations with a teacher union, so I attend a new negotiators’ workshop that the state school boards association offers and take copious notes.

While these workshops and others help me stay one step ahead of the tasks to be completed, I also find that networking with other superintendents or with officials in the state Department of Education is invaluable. I learn that one of the most important things I can do is to make phone calls and ask questions.

All this seems time well spent when Gov. Tom Vilsack announces in mid-October that he is going to implement a 4.3 percent cut on state spending for the current fiscal year. We’re looking at a $98,000 shortfall in state aid out of a total operating budget of about $5 million. And with a quarter of the fiscal year behind us and 80 percent of our budget tied up in salaries and benefits, the impact is going to be huge.

The day after the governor’s announcement, I e-mail all staff members to express my concern about the budget cuts and I call our state senator and state representative. Neither is available, but I leave messages. The senator calls later, and I discuss my concerns.

I meet with staff members and tell them cutting the budget is going to require significant sacrifices. In the short term, we freeze spending and look at reductions in several areas, including transportation, energy usage and line-item expenses. We ask staff members to save on paper costs by using e-mail instead, and we advise people to dress warmly this winter because thermostats will be lowered to 68 degrees to save fuel costs. Projecting ahead, I lock in a price on natural gas to shield the district from the price spikes it experienced last year. We trim back the number of field trips, too, to save on gasoline.

I try to be honest and paint a realistic picture for everyone. Personnel cuts, if necessary, will come from areas furthest from the classroom. But we’ll have to wait until spring to see what happens.

Negotiation sessions are also under way, and the board and the teacher union are meeting to share their initial proposals. It appears that the process will go fairly quickly because money is tight and everyone knows it. Some issues surface: The state’s teacher-quality plan calls for the evaluation for first- and second-year teachers, and we have to adjust the contract accordingly. Teachers also want to play a larger role in setting the school calendar. There aren’t many issues for this year, though, and none of the concerns raised is major.

In light of the long-standing goodwill between the union and the district, I also try to keep the union’s chief negotiator informed about all budget issues. We talk every day and work through some questions about language outside of the negotiation sessions.

The first week of April we wrap up negotiations with a settlement that’s reasonable for all. We keep our insurance increase to 9 percent and boost the total salary package by 3.17 percent, which is within the range of settlements being reported statewide.

Looking Ahead
South Hamilton consists of the communities of Jewell, Ellsworth, Stanhope and Randall. All are farming communities, mostly devoted to grain and livestock, and like other rural districts, we’re small in the number of students and large in square miles (210 square miles, in our case).

Because we’re a small rural district, we know we have to be vigilant in the coming year. The budget we’ve developed for 2002-2003 will meet the district’s needs. Thanks to a couple of retirements, we were able to reduce costs without laying off any teachers. (A larger district south of us has had to lay off nearly 20, and more than 1,000 Iowa teachers have lost their jobs this year.) We have even interviewed and offered contracts for two other certified positions, and we continue to seek applicants for a few support staff and coaching positions.

Still we are mindful that next year’s state revenues will increase by only 1 percent. And since that’s not even the cost of inflation, we know our enrollment must remain steady if the numbers are to work.

We’ll also have to continue making gains in our academic program. We’ve begun to refine our curriculum to support our identified standards and benchmarks, and next year we know we need to expand our vision and look at best practices for assessment as well.

Perhaps most important, as a small rural district, we continue to explore the possibility of sharing programs and resources with other districts. Already this year, we've held regular and special sessions on the issue, and discussions with neighboring districts continue. We’re also working with the state department of education on a feasibility study that’s looking at our strengths, our assets and our vision for the next five years. Neighboring districts are doing the same. Those reports will be a springboard to future discussions, and, to be candid, we all know those discussions could include consolidation.

As we face the future, though, our community is telling us we need to explore all options. That we’ll do. We feel we're a good, strong district with much to offer.

It’s been a good first year. I'm confident next year will be a good one, too.

John Kinley is superintendent of the South Hamilton Community Schools, P.O. Box 100, Jewell, IA 50130. E-mail: john_kinley@s-hamilton.k12.ia.us