A Time for Leadership in Time of Crisis

Type: Article
Topics: School Administrator Magazine

December 01, 2016

My View

“You always want to read about case law. You never want to be the one setting case law.”

Those words, spoken by my graduate professor, Robert Buchanan, at Southeast Missouri State University about 15 years ago, never rang so true to me as they did in August 2015. It was during that time I found myself in the middle of a morally impassioned and highly debated issue of access for transgender students in the public schools. During my 10 years as a superintendent, I never had faced such an emotionally charged issue that so radically divided our town and spurred debate well beyond our community.

The challenges came on days with never-ending phone calls that were overflowing with anger, profanity and hate-filled tirades from individuals who questioned the direction of my moral compass in dealing with a transgender student’s request to use the girls’ restroom and locker room. Added to the mix were the non-stop e-mails and visits from national news media and even a media outlet in London, England.

It did not take long to realize that few individuals are privy to the intricacies, daily workings and the decision-making paradigm of public education.

An Intense Period

Through it all, I felt as if I were on an island, alone. I began using an aphorism that rang truer each time I uttered the words: “School administrators are here for 100 percent of our students, not just 99 percent.” Soon fellow superintendents from around the country were calling to offer support — not only for me, but for our students and our town of 2,800 in eastern Missouri. Several colleagues shared situations in their own districts where they drew a hard line in the sand as opponents expressed their disdain.

Over several months, we experienced many late-night board meetings that were filled with stress and anguish as the school board and I worked to find a resolution that would meet our students’ needs and also bring calm to our community. One meeting had so many attendees, we had to relocate to a school gym to accommodate parents who were vocal with concerns.

It was during that time that our seven-member school board experienced turnover brought about by the resignation of three members, including the president and vice president. Finally, in late spring 2016, our board, with guidance from the Missouri School Boards Association and the district’s legal counsel, adopted policy changes regarding facility usage and student records that offered a clear direction of school district processes. (More information can be found at www.hsdr3.org under the Board of Education tab, BOE Policies, Search Policy Institute JO - Student Records and FBC - Facilities Usage.)

Words of Courage

To navigate through uncharted, rough waters, I’ve had to keep my focus on our students rather than what was best for me. It was not about my individual beliefs — the issue was about doing what was best for all students.

Each day I would read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles. Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances. Courage breeds creativity. Cowardice expresses fear and is mastered by it. Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

As I reflect on the past year, one of the greatest lessons I have learned is that no matter how difficult, hopeless or arduous you believe a situation has become, you are not alone. There will always be school leaders who are willing to offer an ear to listen, have brilliant minds to offer advice and serve as a never-ending source of encouragement.

Lastly, one must always remember it is easy to be the leader when times are great, but true leadership is refined by the struggles we experience and endure as leaders in the districts we serve.


Aaron Cornman

Superintendent of Hillsboro R-III School District in Hillsboro, Mo. E-mail: cornman_aaron@hsdr3.org. Twitter: @DocCSupt