Profile

Confident of a Good Deal, Even With Risks

by Jay P. Goldman

Jim Hinson says a personal question guides every professional decision he makes: “Is this something I would want for my own child?”

It’s a query that has led the 47-year-old superintendent of the Independence, Mo., School District, who has three children of his own, to take what other school leaders might consider circumnavigable risks when he can see a potential payoff for school-age youngsters on the opposite side of the morass.

“That question has provided a simple answer, clearing the clutter that can make an issue seem complex,” says Hinson, a Missouri native who has worked as a superintendent since age 34. “It’s provided a framework for decisions that have allowed me to steer from the status quo.”

Most dramatically, Hinson ventured into treacherous territory when he led the Independence district through an unusual annexation of eight high-poverty schools enrolling about 2,600 students in 2007-08 from the provisionally accredited Kansas City School District. The annexed schools reside within the western edge of Independence but had been part of the larger system since the 1950s when the municipalities were unincorporated. The annexation required federal and state legislative approval and majority votes by the public in both affected areas and surmounted a legal fight that cost the Kansas City backers more than $2 million.

Hinson admits the notion of jumping into the shark-infested waters of annexation never crossed his mind when in 2002 he was named the first superintendent in Independence in more than 30 years to not bubble up through the district ranks.

But then influential community leaders, including a state senator and a politically savvy Baptist minister, sought his involvement. Hinson studied the issues, struck in the end by the lowly test scores and horrible passage and graduation rates at the eight schools whose makeup didn’t differ sharply from those in nearby neighborhoods already under his jurisdiction.

“I knew these kids would be much better off in our school district,” he says today, conceding that a failed or poorly executed annexation could have been a career buster for him. The Independence district, with 19,100 students in preK to 12th grade, for three years running now has received the state’s highest accreditation for the schools’ academic showing.

The superintendent’s self-assuredness served him well during the contentious campaign. An editorial in the Kansas City Star credited Hinson for providing “calm, informative leadership” and for speaking to public audiences with candor and clarity when explaining the complicated tax and funding formulas involved.

Only when some people referred to the children in the eight schools as “those kids” did he take personal umbrage. “They aren’t any different than our kids,” Hinson would say. “This is all about us.”

The Rev. Bob Spradling, whose Baptist church served as unofficial headquarters for those promoting the schools’ merger, believes the superintendent’s deft leadership has contributed to deep public support of Independence’s public schools. “He’s among the top 5 most respected in our community,” Spradling added.

That popular backing became evident again last July when an “Extreme School Makeover” that Hinson helped to organize for the newly annexed sites brought out more than 2,500 community volunteers for a weekend of renovating and remodeling. More than $800,000 in in-kind services were donated, leading the school district’s facilities director to estimate that the work completed in two days would have taken five years for the regular maintenance staff.

“The best advice given to me before I even became an administrator,” Hinson says, “came from an assistant superintend-ent who said, ‘When you look in the mirror each morning, regardless of anything, you need to know you’ve always made decisions by putting the best interest of kids first. We’re in the business for kids, and nothing really else matters.’”

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

BIO STATS: JIM HINSON

Currently:
superintendent, Independence, Mo.

Previously: superintendent, Granby, Mo.

Age: 47

Greatest influence on career: First would be Gale Bartow, a renowned superintendent in Missouri and a past president of AASA. He encouraged me to become a superintendent and, once I gained that role, he mentored me for years.

JimHinson.jpgJim Hinson


Best professional day:
When I drove up to one of the six schools involved in the district’s “Extreme School Makeover” and saw the long line of community members waiting to help, it brought a tear to my eye. Experiencing the sense of giving and unity more than 2,500 people brought to the event was humbling.

Books at bedside: Be Quick — But Don’t Hurry! by Andrew Hill with John R. Wooden; Encouragement Changes Everything by John C. Maxwell; and The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive by Patrick Lencioni

Biggest blooper: It was my first snowstorm as superintendent of Greenfield, Mo., a rural district small in population but large in size. I got up early and drove the northern half of the district before deciding to keep schools open. What I didn’t consider was variations in weather. The southern half was completely snowed in, and parents thought I was crazy. I quickly learned to consider the weather in all quadrants.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: To keep up to date with the latest in education news and national trends, but AASA also provides me contact with other superintendents.