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District Dialogue

Are three school chiefs better than one?

Instead of one superintendent making all decisions, three leaders in Colorado Springs leverage expertise
From left to right: Brett Ridgway, Peter Hilts, Jack Bay.
From left to right: Brett Ridgway, Peter Hilts, Jack Bay.

Why settle for one superintendent when you can have three? It’s happening at District 49 in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado.

Peter Hilts is chief education officer. He considers himself the visionary.

Jack Bay is the “practical” chief operations officer who handles transportation, construction activities and IT.

And as chief business officer, Brett Ridgway strives for precision in the management of finance, human resources, risk, purchasing and contracts.

Sharing the function of superintendent, all three play an equally important role running a district that serves 21,000 students, covers 133 square miles, is divided into three geographic zones, and operates online and charter schools.

All three report to the school board, which converted to the three-person leadership model after years of rapid turnover in the superintendent post. In 2011-12, the board eliminated positions of the human resources director, CFO, CIO and deputy superintendent. They took on three chiefs, which saves the district money—about $250,000 a year.

The trio spoke with DA Managing Editor Angela Pascopella about how it works.

First of all, how and why did this model come about?

Ridgway: I came into the district in 2009 as the director of finance. We’re from a pretty conservative area here in El Paso County, and a lot of people in our community were asking, “Why doesn’t the district run more like a business?”

Our board and community were interested in doing something significantly different that would recognize some benefits of the private sector business. So we’ve distributed the decision-making. It makes it easier because the expertise is directed toward the decision-makers to make informed conclusions. Stability is not in the presence of a single person; stability is the organization itself.

Hilts: A district without stability is chaos. And when you have stability, that is allowing us to do other innovative things.

What kind of expertise do you provide one another?

Bay: I was in big business in the steel industry right out of college. I then ran my own organization in home building. I spent five years doing corporate restructuring and downsizing in districts. When I came on board, I had come from an organization that was extremely lean. So I liked the distributed leadership here.

My real expertise is more on the operational side so I can lean on Brett for his financial expertise. I can lean on Peter because he understands the education models. The world of education is changing so much, and my world of facilities and campuses and the physical plant we have is going to change so much. So I could focus my time on doing what I do best.

Hilts: Brett is one of the most visionary CFOs I’ve ever worked with. He still has that practical side. And Jack is a very innovative operations manager.

During the summer, fall and spring breaks, when we don’t have buildings to be cleaned and floors to be polished, Jack has created a TLC team for when our buildings need tender, loving care.

He has bus drivers, folks who work in administration, paraprofessionals and people in nutrition services that paint and do summer spruce-ups to make our buildings a better place in which to learn and lead.

Tell me about the School of Innovation model and how you work together.

Hilts: Our state passed the Innovation School Act in 2008 to stimulate a traditional district to have the kind of autonomy and agility that we have seen in the charter school sector. We were the first district in Colorado to take advantage of district and zone innovation status. And we’re all working together toward that.

Innovation applies to virtually everything we do or consider doing. For example, launching the state’s first technical early college creates a model for serving students who don’t intend to pursue a liberal arts degree. At the same time, we have launched a blended/online early college that allows more academically oriented students to take advantage of dual enrollment with online classes.

Our concurrent enrollment program, which is when high school students take college courses for dual credit, is growing dramatically. So you have to train high school teachers to get them to be college-level instructors. The education office knows what we want in terms of programs and qualifications.

But we have created a funding mechanism that the business office supported that will allow us to pay for teachers’ tuition to finish their master’s degree so they can teach college-level coursework.

In a totally different program we created the Innovation Institute, a sixth-grade school-within-a-school at one of our middle schools. The operations team repurposed an old charter school facility. It handled internal and site remodeling and created the infrastructure connections for data and voice. That’s where the operations department really engaged to support an education program.

Our population grows every year, and by having the concurrent enrollment program, we are delaying the time we need to build another school. It’s a highly collaborative process.

How do you come together to make a decision that you all agree on?

Bay: It depends on the overall project. When one of our charter schools built a brand new facility, we had a chance to use the old facility. Once it was evident that we were going to repurpose the building, I became involved.

We have a tremendous need for space to have conferences, whether it’s for 10 to 15 people or 100 or 200 people. We have a space we’re using extensively at a cheaper price than renting out another space or hotel conference room.

Ridgway: This is a good example of collaboration. I recognized this building was available. At our weekly meetings, I bring up these kinds of ideas to make sure we’re on same page. “Can we use this building for education? And is it in good enough shape to use this building?” And I make sure we have a good, negotiated deal.

Hilts: That building, the Creekside Success Center, is a shared facility. We lease the top floor to Pike’s Peak Community College. The main floor, which has a large gym sized room, is for professional development. And we held a literacy conference where we brought in experts from across the state and offered our larger community a full-day conference on primary literacy.

We also did a major job fair there where we brought in employers from all over the region to meet with hundreds of students seeking potential future jobs.

We have smaller meeting rooms, some of our zone-level offices and have our central enrollment there. We also have an in-district audiology booth to test students who we suspect might have a hearing impairment, which saves the district money on sending students out of district for testing. We were able to get this facility at 60 cents on the dollar versus constructing a brand new facility.

What happens when solid disagreements arise among you?

Bay: If we disagree, we defer it for awhile and we come back and ask each other, “Where are we now?” The beauty of it is that it’s no different from what a major company does. We ask ourselves, “Does it add value to the district?” A key to this is collaboration, communication and what we think is best for the district.

Hilts: Sometimes we disagree about what’s the next best action. We respect this model and we respect each other. If Brett had a strong position on how a decision might affect our bond rating or had to consider, “Would we get a return on investment,” Jack and I would defer to his expertise because Brett is accountable to the board for that decision.

And when we have a weather delay, for example, I care a lot about what our transportation and operations crews say about it—they are all in Jack’s departments.

We are highly driven by strategy and strategic priorities. And that will make it less likely we will disagree. Can we come to an agreement on what best serves our strategy? We always do.

Could this model provide a solution for other struggling districts?

Hilts: The only condition that is an absolute necessity is you need a school board that is willing to support the expertise and professionalism of those leaders. The size, location, culture of a district, whether it’s struggling or high-performing, I don’t think those things matter as much.

Ridgway: Basically, it’s about stepping away from the old tradition that says there has to be a single leader.

Bay: This model will work if you have a board that is bold and innovative enough to believe in a team. It’s not about me as an individual. It’s about we as a team making the best decisions. DA