The message on the projector slide seemed clear enough: A school board hires the district's chief executive, and then that person selects a team.
Presenter Dan Katzir, managing director of The Broad Foundation, paused when the board president raised his hand. "What do you mean by that?" The president's district was in the middle of a superintendent search.
"I said, 'This hire is your only power,' " Katzir remembers.
"We get involved in hiring the senior team," the president explained, adding that the board needed to be sure the superintendent was selecting the right people.
Katzir solidified his point. "Then I think you've chosen the wrong superintendent."
Many incoming superintendents experience board interference as they attempt to surround themselves with a capable and trustworthy executive team. "It's sometimes pretty difficult because it involves a lot of politicking and a lot of courting one faction of the board or another in order to get the superintendent's team in place," says Michael D. Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. In some districts, urban or not, "it takes a little more corralling than in other places. ... It should be more of a personnel and leadership building process."
Fortunately, some of the political pressures are easing. "When I came to Boston, patronage and nepotism were a heavy influence," says Robert S. Peterkin, director of the Urban Superintendents Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Now, school-appointed committees and the superintendent have authority to hire who they want. Peterkin adds that he's not aware of any program graduates who have complained about not being able to put together the teams they desired.
But internal strifes may still squash a superintendent's plan. "All of the pressures mitigate in the direction of keeping the [existing] team," says Steven Adamowski, the former superintendent in Cincinnati, who has since moved on to higher education. "You are the person with the least amount of knowledge, and you have the most vulnerability." The support and knowledge of existing staff members is crucial, especially in smaller districts.
Financial constraints may also prevent an incoming leader from team-building. When Michael F. Rice took the helm in Clifton (N.J.) Public Schools in 2002, he had already expressed concern about the lack of central-office administrators for a 10,500-student district. In 1990, the district had cut both the curriculum director and personnel director positions. "We're a very frugal community. We're very careful with our money," Rice says, adding that the district has--by far--the lowest K-12 per pupil expenditure in its county.
The board asserted its commitment to bringing the two positions back. The community was persuaded to pass the proposed 2003-2004 budget, which included funds for a personnel director. And thanks to a technology department reorganization, Rice was able to reinstate the curriculum director position.
As any district leader knows, the desire to build a quality team goes well beyond a personal power trip. "Power really does rest within the team. And a district is successful because of a good team," says Edwin Gordon, director of the mid-career doctorate in educational leadership program at the University of Pennsylvania.
The focus on accountability today is all the more reason to break through any existing constraints. "Since the superintendent is being held responsible for district-wide achievement, he would really need the authority to pick his own administrative team and principals," Casserly says.
Plus, the need for a new superintendent in the first place typically points to something that isn't quite working. "If it was such a great team to begin with, one of [the existing administrators] probably would have become the next superintendent," says Adamowski, who is now an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
In personnel matters, random hiring or firing certainly doesn't make it through the best practices gate. "It's all got to be for a purpose," says Katzir. So before incoming superintendents can assess their existing teams and decide what changes to make, they need a plan.
When Helen C. Sobehart joined Pittsburgh's Fox Chapel Area School District as the assistant superintendent in 1989, she was asked to oversee the strategic planning process. "I made it clear from day one that once we had decided upon our vision, mission and goals, that everything we did was going to be tied to [them]," says Sobehart, who later served as the district's acting superintendent. "It's everybody's responsibility to be moving in the direction of those goals."
"I think people underestimate the necessity and power of vision," Adamowski says. "All vision is based ultimately on data. It's not that the leader is pulling the vision out of the sky." He and other experts recommend asking community leaders and the current management team and staff about the strongest and weakest areas of the district.
For the San Francisco Unified School District that meant getting input from 3,000 people in developing its Excellence for All five-year academic achievement plan, explains Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
After the direction is set, a superintendent can determine who is ready and able to make it all happen. Ackerman likes to envision a good team as one "that understands the forest and then understands the trees, and then understands how all the pieces are put together." In shaping her executive cabinet, Ackerman was seeking risk-takers with commitment and high energy. "A good match with me are people who can keep up with me!" she says.
In considering reassignments, it's important to discuss the goals of the district and the goals of the person's current position, says Sobehart, who is now director of Duquesne University's leadership institute and interdisciplinary doctoral program for educational leaders. "Give them specific ideas on how they could perform those roles effectively and offer support in doing that," she advises.
Incoming superintendents don't have to go it alone in evaluating how existing administrators fit into their vision for the district. Tim Quinn, managing director of The Broad Center for Superintendents, says leaders sometimes use a transition team to look at all aspects of how the district functions. Superintendents in other districts, trusted colleagues and university professors commonly make up these groups.
The Broad Foundation also supports strategic support teams that go in and examine specific district operations. A team will interview staff members and ask for documentation to determine how knowledgeable people are about their areas of responsibility. Recommendations, such as replacing certain people and beefing up or studying more closely a particular operational area, go to the superintendent, Quinn explains.
Of course, assessments are also made based on informal observation--such as if a particular person isn't gelling with others during meetings or if conversations with an administrator reveal talents that aren't being utilized. For example, when Stan Fields was hired to lead Mundelein (Ill.) High School District 120 this year, he met with each of his direct reports twice--once in a professional format that "felt like school" and once more casually. He also asked the group to list all the responsibilities needed to run a district and then assign them to each other, according to talent and expertise. Conversations with the retiring superintendent rounded out the picture.
Shaking it Up
Like many of his peers today, Fields had arrived in his district with ideas for reducing administrative costs and eliminating unnecessary bureaucratic layers. He looked to other one-school districts with on-site central offices and noted that the principal positions had been eliminated. It seemed that getting rid of the middle management layer--which also included an education administrator and four academic directors--would increase efficiency.
During this transition year, Fields has removed these positions and a few others, as well as created new positions--including a public information director, an assistant superintendent for curriculum and a deputy superintendent for staff and student services. The latter two positions were filled by reassignment, and Fields says these team members are now in their dream jobs. More than $500,000 has been cut from bottom-line costs so far, which, of course, pleases the public.
But will the students miss having a principal? A front-page article in the first edition of the school newspaper this year, which highlighted the district changes, reveals that they're seeing the positives of the reorganization. After being invited to meet with Fields, one senior was quoted as saying: "We never even saw our [former] superintendent before."
Ackerman arrived in San Francisco with her long-held belief that the whole district community should know the superintendent. It only took a glance at the bloated org chart--"There were at least 20 associate and assistant superintendents when I came," she recalls--to see there was much to be done.
Within the first month, she reassigned 50 to 60 central office staff members (and $3 million in salaries) to classrooms. Then, over the course of a year, the superintendent planned how she could best "reshape and downsize and redesign" her management team.
Now the organization is much flatter. Many of the assistant- and associate-level positions have been merged into a handful of top-level positions focusing on a particular area, such as finance, technology and community development. Academic achievement is now under the direction of a single administrator. The position changes, along with program eliminations, redirected another $10 million back into the schools. This was on top of $15 million already cut from the budget because of the district's deficit, Ackerman says. "I want that to be clear to the people here, that we are second. The schools are first."
Move Up or Move Out
Adamowski's team in Cincinnati developed a structure where principal position vacancies would be filled by a group at each school site, with heavy input from the community. Out of that structure came a high-scale leadership development program. "Our goal was to produce about 50 percent of our [building-level administrator] candidates from within the district," he explains.
A recognition of right-in-your-own-backyard talent has grown in the past few years among superintendents looking to fill both school- and central office-level vacancies, says Gordon.
"Promoting from within does a good deal to build trust," Quinn notes. It also recognizes what is going well and who is working and striving toward educating students in the best possible way, adds Mary Jo Kramer, superintendent of Darien (Conn.) Public Schools.
Being up front goes a long way in easing the transition for administrators whose positions are being eliminated or who are asked to leave the district. Fields gave the four academic directors in Mundelein 12 months to figure out their next step. Two retired, and one asked to be reassigned to the classroom. "I thought about how I would want to be treated in the same position," he says.
When Adamowski decided to replace a few top Cincinnati administrators, one retired under pressure and the other was demoted. "There's no substitute for honesty and getting it over as quickly as possible," he says. The leader remembers saying, "There's nothing wrong with you as a person. It's just not a good fit."
Built on a Rock
Creating a new position altogether in a district often means selling the idea to the board and entire community. To build his case for the curriculum and personnel director positions in Clifton, Rice put together an audit team. "You can talk about things to the extent where they think you're the Wizard of Oz, but when they're able to see the audit ... they have to be impressed by the commitment," he says. With 11 of the 14 prior budgets having been rejected by voters, he could take no chances.
To parents, Rice acknowledged the district's curriculum alignment issues. Although a standards-based curriculum guide exists for each of the district's 266 courses, the content in them isn't always taught or tested. "We said to our parents, 'We can do better in terms of teaching your kids. And a curriculum director can make sure that ... each grade is at grade level, not [covering] a watered-down curriculum from the previous grade,' " he explains. Then he justified the personnel director position as necessary for supervising existing teachers and bringing in quality new hires.
During her three superintendencies, Kramer has won support for elevating current positions to attract the best talent for the job. In Windham (Conn.) Public Schools, for instance, she changed a director of instruction position to an assistant superintendent position so she could attract "someone of a higher caliber." The district, which included a sizeable population of both English language learners and impoverished families, had the fourth lowest test scores in the state at the time. "Clearly things were broken and needed fixing," she says, adding that she recruited the director of Title I programs at the state Department of Education to take on the challenge. Now he is the district's superintendent.
Educational leadership programs can help future superintendents learn how to make winning appointments like that one and work effectively as part of a team.
At UMSL, Adamowski's District Administration course approaches the challenge from the standpoint of putting your focus and best resources in your core business. "In an urban district, you make more meals every day than in every restaurant in the city. You make more copies of all the Kinko's combined. These are great things but not your core business," he tells students. Beefing up the instructional core and creating a culture around it will get results.
Gordon's mid-career program takes advantage of its diverse enrollment--besides public and private schools, students come from the corporate and government worlds or are entrepreneurs--when organizing classroom learning teams. The structure forces shared decision-making, and discussions also expand to team-building at all levels of a district.
Based on an assessment of leadership styles, Duquesne's program also groups different types of students together in a "high-stakes arrangement" where members each get the same grade on projects. Besides getting accustomed to different work styles, the students "have to learn how to work with different people's perspectives, work schedules and family demands," Sobehart says.
Duquesne has partnered with Pennsylvania State University and the state superintendents association to take leadership lessons on the road, as well. Teams from the Pennsylvania Leadership Development Center visit districts to assess individuals' skills and provide training in 10 strategic leadership dimensions.
But some of the greatest wisdom, experienced administrative team-builders say, can be found on the shelf of nearly any bookstore. In Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001), author Jim Collins includes a chapter about the leader's role in getting "the right people on the bus" and in the right seats on the bus before figuring out the best path to greatness. It's a path that Collins says is especially relevant to education, which is "perhaps the single most important sector that must be great, if we hope to have a great society." The book's research-based findings seem to "resonate with people down in the trenches of education," he says, adding that "educators are hungry for ideas that are about putting your shoulder to the flywheel and pushing for hard, tangible results."
With the right team in place, that journey can be both fun and successful. "You can see the comradery," Ackerman says of her administrative team. "We laugh, we work hard and if one person needs help, we all pitch in."
Melissa Ezarik is features editor.