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Integrity, Accountability, Continuity

It may look like an easy game plan, but Rockford, Mich., Superintendent Michael Shibler explains the




Q: One might think the job of superintendent in a school system with Rockford's demographics and achievement levels would be easier than most. Is it?



Q: What's kept you here for 17 years in an era when the tenures of superintendents seem to be shrinking?




Q: Not many superintendents have the choice of staying around for so long? What has it taken to stay on the right side of the school board?





Q: What have been the board's arguments with you over the years?


There are situations-and I've only done this a couple of times-where in meeting with a board trustee I've taken the gloves off and have an open, candid conversation and let him know, "Look, I'm hired by you as a trustee of the board of education to provide the leadership of the school district. That's my job. Your job is to write and set policy and to hold me accountable for the success and failure of the school system. And if you're getting into my area of responsibility, then I've got a problem. I'm not going to accept micro-management."

When I was interviewed for this job, I said, "There aren't eight superintendents. There's one superintendent and seven board members. And if you can't agree with that, don't hire me. And if you do hire me, that's the way I operate."

In 1992, my third year here, we had a three-week strike. That was tough, and a lot of people said to me when it was coming to a conclusion, "You're not going to survive this." I got to the point that I met with the board and told them, "If you want me to continue to be superintendent, I'm going to replace the chief negotiator for our side. I'm going to go in and sell this contract this afternoon." They didn't like it, but I told them, "If you want me to stay here, I've got to take control of this thing and it's going to be under my terms, and here they are."

And they agreed. That was early in the morning. I met with the negotiators for the teachers and support staff from 1 to 1:30 and we had an agreement ratified by all groups.

I started meeting on a monthly basis with the support staff and the teachers' union. We've done that since 1992, and we resolve issues before they become problems. It's done through face-to-face open communication. In the last 14 years, we've never had a grievance. And over the past several years, we've settled contracts in just a couple of days rather than weeks without becoming contentious.

Q: Is one of the advantages of longevity being able to correct yourself as you go along because you have enough time to do it?

Shibler: The advantage is credibility, particularly if you have established relationships with a variety of stakeholders. I believe that if you're wrong, say you're wrong. There have been times when we implemented a particular program or strategy and it wasn't successful. Instead of trying to make excuses, I've said, "I'm responsible, and I accept responsibility for the failure of this program, and we're going to correct it. We're going to do the things we need to do to make it successful."

When I've done that, I literally get letters and e-mails and phone calls saying, "Thank you. It's a breath of fresh air that somebody in a leadership position is willing to say that he's made a mistake and is going to correct it."

Q: How do you maintain the quality of good schools through changing times?

Shibler: It's very simple. We believe in continuous improvement. That's the bottom line and that's what our strategic plan points out: We're going to be better this year then we were last, and we're going to be better next year than we are this year. If you tread water long enough, you're going to drown.

Q: So how do you approach your strategic planning?

Shibler: We start the process long before the plan is adopted by the board. We use focus groups and surveys of stakeholders including elementary school parents, high school parents, empty nesters, senior citizens, 11th and 12th grade students, staff, and teachers. I've always believed you have to get the community involved, but you better take the results that they give you and implement them. If you listen to them and you don't set the goals that address some of the concerns they've expressed, they'll never respond again.

For RAMS VI-our current strategic plan, which we began working on 14 months in advance-I employed a researcher to make sure that the random sampling was done scientifically and that we got a very accurate picture of the community's expectations. Then in the summer of 2005 we took all that information-I've got a book one-and-a-half inches thick-and the board and administrators met in a workshop for three days to write goal statements. The RAMS model is broken up into eight categories, including curriculum, public relations, building and site, special services, finance, and personnel. We formed committees to identify goal statements for each of these areas based on the survey results.

When we met again in October, we put those goal statements on poster sheets, and I took all eight sheets and put them on the walls around the room. Then I handed every board member and administrator blue, red, and yellow stick-on dots. The blue dots were "priorities," the red dots were "important," the yellow dots were, "It would be nice." And they were each given a limited number of dots, so they had to ration as they assigned these dots to the different goal statements.

Once that was done, the yellow dots disappeared. There were 250 goal statements, which we needed to bring down to a more reasonable number close to 100. We took most of the blue-dot goals and some of the red. Then I picked people who were good at writing and said, "I want the average citizen in Rockford to be able to read that statement and understand it. I don't want "education-ese." I don't want jargon. Then I put together a package to present to the board last November, and it was adopted in December.

This is what I think is the difference between our strategic planning and a lot of other school districts. It's so important to do it right the first time that we take the time, no matter how long, to get it right.

Q: For all the good intentions, how do you keep your strategic plan from becoming a theoretical exercise?

Shibler: First of all, all administrators in the district either chair and/or serve on one of these goal committees, and part of their evaluation is based on the successful completion of those goals. We have public progress reports on the goals at school board meetings in June and December. The newspapers cover it, and in our district newsletter, I'll write up goals that we've accomplished and our progress on other goals, so that people can see we're giving more than lip service to these things.

One current goal, for instance, is starting a Spanish immersion program, and it will be implemented this coming fall. Another involves working with realtors and contractors in planning strategically for new schools, and we're in the process of purchasing property for our new elementary school. Yet another strategic plan is to work on an annual basis with our community leaders in government and in the private sector to tell us whether we're meeting expectations.

This is our blueprint for improvement, and it's really difficult to pull us away from it. And yes, other things can get in the way, and you have to deal with them. But for RAMS V, which concluded last December, we accomplished 96 percent of the goals, even during difficult economic times.

Q: How well do the requirements of NCLB fit with what you are trying to accomplish?

Shibler: I'm a strong believer in basic skills testing but I'm concerned about the fact that we're starting to base our decisions only on testing. I'm more interested in preparing children who exit high school with a diploma to go onto post-secondary training of some kind. Every kid needs to go beyond high school. That may be a technical school or a two-year college or a four-college. We need to guide kids into postsecondary training, although that may not be a four-year college. Our job as a high school and as a school district is to prepare them so they can be lifelong learners so they can adjust to get the skills that they need.

Q: What's it like being part of a community for such a long time?

Shibler: I've always said Rockford is a great place to live, to raise a family, and to work. I am on the board of directors for the Rockford Area Chamber of Commerce and the Rockford YMCA. I'm on the economic development corporation. I serve on these boards outside of education because I want to continue to contribute in different ways to the community. I'm very visible, and I do that by plan.

Q: So how do you find time-and space-for your private life?

Shibler: When I moved here 17 years ago, I wasn't going to hide and play games. I enjoy going out for a beer and a hamburger. I can go to a performing arts event or an athletic event, and I've never been bugged by people. When they have concerns, they call or come into the office to see me. I have an open-door policy, but they also respect my privacy.

I'm active with my kids, particularly the two younger ones. The high schooler is doing track, and the younger one is doing track and AAU volleyball. My goal at one time in my life was to be an urban city superintendent. My father was superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools in the 1950s. So I grew up in that type of environment. When I took the Rockford job, I was looking at it as a steppingstone to a larger, urban district. But I can't recall one evening when I was a child that my father was home for dinner.

Well, I came home from a meeting in Rockford my first year-I was averaging two or three nights out-and I remember my two-year-old daughter, who now is 19, hid my shoes so I couldn't find them. I asked her why, and she said "I know you're going to be leaving."

That hit me hard. What's more important in this life: Do I want to raise a family where my kids do not know who I am and really never see me at home except on weekends? So I made the conscious decision that I was not going to aggressively seek a large, urban district because I wanted my three daughters to know their dad.

Q: What's it like having your three daughters go through their entire school careers with their father as the superintendent?

Shibler: Quite frankly, they've handled it extremely well. When it comes to grades and academic progress, I've had my kids get reports at the low C level, and I've talked with my kids and met with the teachers, and I try to help the teachers understand that I'm here as a parent now and not as the superintendent of schools.

My kids have never come to me and said, "Dad, I wish you weren't superintendent of schools." I'm surprised by that. But in the long-run having that extra pressure might be good for them when they get into the real world in their jobs and as parents and wives and workers. I'll tell you, though, it was tough for my 19-year-old when it came to dating. I believe that a lot of the boys didn't want to meet me at the front door, and she has lamented to me, "I didn't have a lot of dates because a lot of the guys were shy about coming by."

Q: What guiding principles have served you best in your time here?

Shibler: Integrity, the importance of not doing the popular thing, but doing the right thing and being willing to take the heat when people don't agree with you. What I try to do now-and why I teach classes at Michigan State-is pass on to a younger generation some of the things I've done that have worked.

In the last four years, we've cut $7 million in programs, simply because of the challenge in state funding. We've cut staff, we've cut programs-for instance, we've reduced elementary physical education by 50 percent-and a few years ago even had to reduce secondary school busing, As long as people in this community, even though they're upset by the cuts, know that we're sincere and can trust us and that we have the best interests of their child and the community at heart, they'll buy in.

Ron Schachter is a contributing editor.