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Profile                                                             Page 55

 

A ‘Dirty Hands’ Start to

Leadership   

 

BY MARIAN KISCH

Alan Lee Baldwin
Alan Lee

The headline in the Idahonian newspaper read: “From school custodian to principal.” And it aptly captured the unusual career path into school administration for Alan Lee, now a veteran of 15 years in the superintendency, the last 3½ on the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

It began humbly for the native of Medora, Ind., who started as a school bus driver before taking a janitorial position at a junior high school in Moscow, Idaho. He stayed until the principal, who learned Lee had a college degree, tapped him for a vacant teaching position.

“The principal told me that he was impressed with how I interacted with the kids and how I cleaned the bathrooms,” Lee chuckles. “I learned to always do a great job, no matter what the job.”

Lee was planning a return to college for a degree in forestry but decided to give teaching a whirl. After doing so for 10 years and getting a master’s degree, the same principal promoted him to be his assistant. At first, Lee believed he had to know all the answers. “But I soon learned that the best way was to get others involved, to collaborate,” he says. “And I’ve continued that to this day.”

After filling a principalship in Washington state, he was asked to return to Moscow as principal of the same junior high where he worked as janitor.

He accepted superintendencies in Rawlins, Wyo., and Abingdon, Va., then in 2010 took over the top spot in Baldwin County, Ala., a 30,000-student district in the southwest coastal corner of the state.

Robert Wills, mayor of Bay Minette, Ala., and former Baldwin County school board member, admits to voting against Lee’s hiring because he favored an in-house candidate. But his views quickly turned positive. “Alan deals with issues head-on, without trying to tiptoe around,” Wills says. “He makes his decisions based on information, rather than whether it’s the popular one.”

When one of the county municipalities threatened to break away from the county school system, Wills recalls Lee “took a strong stand and convinced it to stay with Baldwin.”

The superintendent’s biggest challenge revolved around the district’s operating budget. Although he knew Baldwin had some fiscal issues, he did not realize the extent of the problem. When the state’s finance director paid him a visit, Lee learned he was required to have $16.5 million in the district’s reserve, which carried only $650,000. “I got cold chills,” he admits. “What if there was an emergency? We were living on a shoestring.”

Lee immediately instituted cost-saving measures and eliminated some administrative posts. He pushed hard for public renewal of the 1 cent sales tax, which provided $30 million for the schools. To do so, he made more than 130 presentations to community organizations.

“He could have had someone else push this initiative, but he wanted to take care of this himself,” says Tracy Roberts, a state board of education member from Baldwin County. “He showed real leadership and courage. We are the most conservative county in the state, and Alan showed the community what the schools would look like without this tax.” The effort paid off, with 62 percent voting in favor.

Lee also hasn’t forgotten about his roots, when his work life dealt with the mundaneness of cleaning junior high bathroom stalls. When he visits schools in his district, he’ll often ask employees if there is anything he can do to make their job better. “He’s willing to hear negative answers as well as positive,” Roberts says.

Marian Kisch is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. E-mail: mariankisch@verizon.net

BIO STATS: ALAN LEE

Currently: superintendent, Baldwin County, Ala.

Previously: superintendent, Washington County, Va.

Age: 65

Greatest influence on career: Charles Sutton, my first principal and mentor in Moscow, Idaho; Alethia Fasolino, Moscow superintendent, an early mentor; Donald Reed, my major professor at Washington State University

Best professional day: When students on my high school advisory described the incredible impact of technology on their ability to learn

Books at bedside: The Dawn of Innovation by Charles Morris; Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne; and Disrupting Class by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson

Biggest blooper: Creating a high school class schedule for the first time

Why I’m an AASA member: AASA has always sought to better the lives of children. That is a characteristic for which we can all take pride.
 

 

 

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