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My Transition Plan:

Knowing Where to Find Help


Randy Russell (far right, back row), superintendent of Freeman School District inRockford, Wash., with staff members on Wear Pink to School Day, in support of breast cancer awareness.

After receiving the great news that I had been selected as the superintendent of a small, rural school district near Spokane, Wash., I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. The Freeman School District in Rockford, Wash., has an excellent reputation, and the candidate pool for the position was extremely strong. This would be a great opportunity to make a difference in a new leadership role.

After 48 hours, the euphoria had begun to wear off. My mind was running a million miles an hour. There were thousands of details to address. I would be leaving a high school principalship of five years in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; moving my wife and children and selling our house; starting work in a new community in a different state; succeeding an admired superintendent who was retiring; negotiating a contract with my new board; and working for five bosses, not just one. I knew I would need help to ensure a successful personal and professional transition.

Useful help came from the Washington Association of School Administrators, the educational service district and colleagues, all of whom smoothed out my transition through timely assistance, professional development and mentoring. One read I found especially valuable was What Every Rookie Superintendent Should Know: Surviving Year One by Robert Reeves.

Five Elements
Looking back two years now, I find my successful transition centered on these five areas:

Building a relationship with the school board. Like most educators who become a first-time superintendent, I’d never reported to more than one person, let alone a publicly elected body of five citizens serving on the board of education. Building positive relationships and developing a cohesive team were important first steps. That meant ensuring the school board and superintendent understood and respected their respective roles.

We addressed the clarification of our responsibilities through our initial school board work session and through one-on-one meetings with each board member. This time together created an open, honest dialogue leading to mutual trust.

We committed to a “no surprises” approach that would keep both sides informed and connected. We also worked on building superintendent-school board goals together, connecting them directly to the school district’s strategic plan.

Communicating openly with stakeholders. Upon coming to Freeman — a school district with 850 students spread over 150 square miles that includes several farming communities — I was a completely unknown entity. Listening, learning and gathering information from all parties was necessary to appreciate the district’s culture. I considered every single student, staff member and community member — not just the superintendent — a spokesperson for the school district, so I had to know how they viewed our schools.

Connecting with the local and state legislators was important, as well. Most elected officials don’t have a deep knowledge and understanding of education issues. To ensure they had accurate information, I shared my cell phone number and assured local legislators that I would be available at any time. When we invited our area legislators to meet with our students and staff, we were thrilled when every single one took us up on our offer.

Connecting with mentors and colleagues. New superintendents need a mentor, who can share insights based on experience to help a rookie deal with first-time situations or serve as a listening board. My mentors, Brian Talbott, Nine Mile Falls superintendent, and Mike Dunn, superintendent of the NorthEast Washington Educational Service District in Spokane, heard from me almost daily during my first year.

Connecting with colleagues individually and through a state association can contribute substantially to a successful start professionally and personally.

Focusing on student achievement. One of the first things was to develop a superintendent’s creed that encompassed my beliefs. My creed — “To provide for, protect, and lead the Freeman School District learning system and create an environment to maximize student learning and teaching excellence” — was an opportunity to begin the new position with an intentional focus on instructional leadership.

It is extremely important for the superintendent to serve as an instructional leader and model to maximize student achievement and teaching excellence districtwide.

Understanding school finance. A first-time superintendent rarely arrives on the scene with a great command of district-level financial knowledge. Yet one is expected to quickly become an authority on how to handle diminishing resources, ever-changing state and federal laws related to finances, and public campaigns for school levies and bonds.

Early on, I spent considerable time with the district’s business manager to look at the entire school district budget and then with department/division leaders to review their respective budgets.

Those of us new to the superintendency after serving as a building principal may have some familiarity with a local levy effort, but rarely do we come with experience in the entire levy or bond campaign. Consulting with staff and community members leads to understanding of the financial climate of the district.

Randy Russell is superintendent of the Freeman School District in Rockford, Wash. E-mail: rrussell@freemansd.org


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