Focus                                                          Page 14-15 


What We Learned in Rebuilding

Our Offices  


Stephen Joe

On Memorial Day 2011, the district offices of the Lincoln Public Schools burned to the ground. The entire 100,000-square-foot structure was destroyed at an estimated loss of $15 million to the building and $5 million to the contents, the largest fire-related loss in the city’s history.

Lincoln Public Schools’ central-office employees have been relocated since then to several work sites throughout the community while a new school district facility is under construction. The new district office building is scheduled to open in summer 2013.

I had been with the school district for almost one year at the time of the fire. My experiences during the 15 months since serve as the basis of several guiding decisions that would be relevant to any disaster-recovery scenario.

Personnel Picks
Within hours of the fire, my immediate priority was identifying which staff members I wanted to bring to the table. I knew I needed to determine who I wanted at my side during recovery — school district administrators who would respond well in a crisis and provide calm leadership, even when they were dealing with their own personal loss. That decision is the most critical one in times of disaster.

The impulse when dealing with a crisis is to narrowly focus on the mandatory work at hand, but I have learned through experience the importance of taking the time to communicate as soon and as continuously as possible with all audiences — district staff, students, families and community. We remained resolute in our dedication to keep our discussion, decisions and direction open to the public.

To do so, we used automated phone calls, e-mail, social media and temporary websites (our data were saved, but main servers were lost in the destruction). We wrote guest editorials for the daily newspaper and kept an open line to all news media. I started a blog.

We chose our main messages carefully and intentionally around these three points:

  • This crisis will not interfere with our priority of providing a quality education for Lincoln’s children. School will open on time.
  • We are grateful to our community for their ongoing support.
  • Our school district will come out of this stronger and better.

In a guest column that ran in the local newspaper a few weeks after the fire, I wrote: “Thanks to incredible community support, we have accomplished miracles since that fateful Memorial Day weekend, moving forward with a serious commitment to fiscal responsibility, public discussion and living up to the trust you have placed in us.”

Temporary Authority
One of the smartest moves came out of advice from our attorney, who suggested the board of education be asked to grant emergency powers to the superintendent for a limited time. After such a disaster, a school district faces the potential of getting bogged down if forced to gain approval from the school board for every single decision — where to relocate people, meeting payroll, signing leases, etc.

In Lincoln Public Schools, two readings are normally required to approve items on the school board agenda. Securing emergency powers streamlined our capacity for a quick and efficient response time. I recognize the school board for understanding the value of this vote and for being willing to trust us. It was one of the most fundamental moves we made.

Because a crisis touches every department in the district’s operation, I am grateful to all the smart, hard-working people who were willing to work 24/7. Technology is a particularly challenging aspect of recovering from a disaster. It’s not just about restoring technology-based services in a few weeks; in our case, it was also about executing a five-year strategic plan in about five weeks — a plan that reduced the number of physical servers from more than 150 to under 50 while achieving greater performance, increased growth capacity and a much higher degree of service resilience.

The plan also had to be flexible enough to create a paperless process for human resources by implementing a digital workflow. In that way, the fire presented an opportunity for innovation and became more than simply putting together quick recovery pieces.

A Stronger Presence
Throughout the aftermath of a crisis, you must also remember the value of relationships and the importance of honoring your employees. These are individuals who are experiencing their own personal loss while working valiantly to put everything back together again in the best interest of the community’s children. Give them time to grieve and allow opportunities for them to talk and share. And find ways to recognize and thank them. At the recent groundbreaking for our new building, we involved district-office employees in the ceremony, inviting them to the podium to talk of closure and new beginnings.

Disaster recovery does not end a week or a month later. Several months after the fire, a school district employee was charged with arson, when she burned some papers on a desktop, which set off new waves of media interest. Last November, we helped sponsor a community workshop sharing what we had learned in disaster recovery. And we continued to maintain a communitywide conversation and welcomed public suggestions about where we would rebuild and what we would name the new development.

Perhaps most importantly, disaster recovery is about going beyond the loss to create new procedures and solutions that make your organization stronger for the experience.

Stephen Joel is superintendent of the Lincoln Public Schools in Lincoln, Neb. E-mail: sjoel@lps.org


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