In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a staff member of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation is with Mike Armstrong, currently Lawrence County Schools superintendent and come July 1, the new executive director of KSBA. Armstrong began his career in the classroom and has worked at the state level in special education for the Kentucky and Ohio departments of education. He talked about his views on the new position, his goals and the challenges ahead.
Q: What interested you about the job of leading a statewide association?
A: I had a chance to do statewide work for almost 10 years when I was working at the Department of Education in Frankfort and the Ohio Department of Education, and statewide work, to me, is exciting, it’s challenging and it’s invigorating. With 173 school districts all across the Commonwealth and looking at the uniqueness of each school district, but yet the commonness that also connects all 173 school districts, it just makes for an exciting opportunity to jump in and to listen, learn and work to the benefit of our board members.
Q: Do you feel that having worked in a district is an advantage as you take on this new job?
A: Absolutely. The first 18 years I worked, I worked in a local school district and I had indirect contact, so to speak, with our board of education, but during my tenure now as a superintendent, it has allowed me that unique and special relationship with the board that I believe will carry over to be able to work with all of our boards across the state.
Q: What skills have you learned as a superintendent that will be used most in your new job?
A: Having a career-long history as a school administrator in some capacity, there are two things that I hope I have learned. One is the ability to communicate your message, but the other piece – which I think is more important – is the ability to listen. That is what I believe as a superintendent with my board of education and with the public at large, but especially the board, is to be able to listen and internalize their issues, their questions, their concerns and to turn those conversations as necessary and as appropriate, back into action or reaction of some kind. That is, I think, the one thing I have been able to learn and probably hone that skill as a superintendent.
Q: What are some of your goals for KSBA, both short- and long-term?
A: Obviously, short term there are two things. Beginning July 1, just to begin to work on a day-to-day basis with the staff there in Frankfort. I would assume with the legislature ending their session that there will be some very special and unique pieces of new legislation that boards of education, working in cooperation with superintendents, would need to learn and would need to get their arms around that would even impact the coming of the new school year.
I assume many districts will have a short summer, just because of the impact of the weather, so the need to be able to communicate very concisely what new laws, new expectations that board members will be expected to abide by in the new year is kind of a short-term piece for me, also.
Long term, it’s beginning to grow those relationships with our current partners from my personal perspective, to explore more possible partnerships with others, either regional or statewide agencies and entities that are out there and to, in a long-term way, advocate for and provide for the necessary learning and growth that our school boards want and need.
Q: How do you plan to reach out to these partners that we currently have?
A: Already, I’ve had lunch or dinner invitations from three or four of the different Frankfort-based entities. I’ve heard from several of the co-op leaders around the state who have invited me to their co-op, even outside the regular meeting schedule that they have, to sit down with the co-op leaders just to talk, to listen.
I’ll be attending, of course, quarterly KSBA board meetings; I’ll be attending the National School Boards Association meeting in New Orleans in April, so throughout the state and even at the national level, I’m anxious to just meet, exchange contact information and to begin to schedule opportunities, even on a regular basis, to talk and to listen and to share.
Q: How will you go about settling into the new position? What tops your agenda?
A: Probably just beginning to put faces with names of people there at the KSBA office. Using the telephone, email in the office to reach out. I have had, I daresay, almost hundreds of contacts already coming to me, either congratulatory or (saying) looking forward to working with you, to begin to officially add those people to my KSBA Rolodex so to speak, to talk and again, to listen to these folks about issues that are real and specific to them.
I’m anxious to begin to circulate around the state in a purposeful and intentional way to begin to meet board chairs, boards of education. I know we do regional meetings on a regular basis in the fall, just to look at the pieces and parts of that, to make sure if there’s any other need that board members might have during that face-to-face contact, that we acknowledge that, do our best to meet that need.
Q: It sounds like what you’re saying is you’re going to try to be as visible as possible in the early days?
A: Oh, my gosh, I believe in that so much. It’s so important – it’s one thing to call somebody and it’s another thing to email, it’s another thing to use technology to communicate, but the ability to shake somebody’s hand and to sit down and have an eye-to eye conversation is so valuable.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge in this job?
A: One-hundred-seventy-three school districts stretched from Pikeville to Paducah – literally, Kentucky’s a large state to be able to nurture and build those relationships, as I mentioned, on a personal basis – it’s somewhat of a challenge just because of the geographical challenges that the state poses.
Also, one of the challenges I want to lay out there is to be able to voice, work in communication, from a fact-based foundation. Technology is a wonderful tool to share information, but it’s also a tool that people will sometimes misuse and misapply words or facts or meanings or interpretations. So to be able to voice, harness what the facts are and to use those as a firm foundation for information that comes from KSBA is a piece that we want to make sure we embrace and do well.
It’s important to make sure our message, or our messages, such as they are, are succinct, are to the point and that we’re consistent with those messages.
Q: In terms of KSBAs’ biggest challenges, what do you feel like are the knottiest things that we face?
A: There are so many people and entities that today impact public education. And I think it’s an ongoing challenge for an entity like KSBA to be recognized as the authority when it comes to keeping local boards of education informed and up to date and current with all the information individual board members and board members collectively need to effectively and efficiently do their jobs.
There are several new things coming down the pike now relative to the expectations for board members to become better educated and better informed about school finances, about the ethics of board membership and the evaluation of superintendents. Those three pieces in and of themselves are, I think, really, really challenging in a way that we need to make sure board members fully embrace and comprehend and can then put into practice those three relatively new expectations that have been put on them.
It’s just important for us to make sure that boards efficiently and effectively work through this latest piece that’s been handed to them so that they and their local superintendents can, in partnership, effectively manage their school system.
Q: So the challenge is meeting some of these changing demands on school board members?
A: Yes, and then in the short term here until the legislature adjourns, there yet may be other brand-new pieces of legislation that come out of this session that we’ll have to adapt to quickly and make sure the information gets out there.
Q: You’ve mentioned the legislature a couple of times. Is this a special interest of yours – is advocacy something you planned to be involved in?
A: I’ve talked with Shannon (Stiglitz, KSBA’ government relations director) several times and she’s done a really nice job of keeping me in the loop. But at the same time, I do believe that the face of KSBA needs to be out there with our legislators, just making sure they understand what our most important pieces and parts of managing the schools are and to build those relationships, so that when the phone rings for me, that the executive director can likewise speak for the association. I just want to nurture those relationships both individually and collectively between KSBA and our legislators.
Q: You’re in the latter part of your career, yet you have enrolled in a doctoral program. Why?
A: As a local superintendent, I often found myself, especially with our middle and high school students, talking about the power of being college and career ready and the importance of being a lifelong learner. And I realized that it’s one thing to talk the talk, but it’s another thing to walk the walk that you’re talking.
And in order for me to model what I believe in, I looked around and realized what better way for me to literally model being a lifelong learner than to jump back into a very structured, so to speak, education program – this being a doctoral program – and that even at 58, 59 years old I can still learn and I can still exemplify and model for students, especially, the power and the ability to learn regardless of how busy, regardless of how old, regardless of what the individual circumstances are. The ability to model is really important to me.
Q: What message or messages would you like to convey to our membership?
A: I think just that I really look forward to meeting boards of education all across the Commonwealth, look forward to representing them, be it in Frankfort with the state agencies, representing them not only here in the Commonwealth but across the country, to let the country know why Kentucky is perceived as a leader in education.
One of the key reasons that Kentucky is recognized as a leader in education, I think, is because of active and interested local boards of education that provide the leadership and the support to their superintendent and their students, to make every student in Kentucky college and career ready.
Q: Do you have some words of encouragement to school board members?
A: I know that my five board members look forward to their work – I know it’s challenging work. I applaud every layperson that chooses to put their name on the ballot and to stand for something.
All the opportunities that people have with technology to make anonymous comments – well, board of education members are not anonymous. Their face, their personage is out there and they stand for something. They stand for the students in their community getting a sound education. I think that’s something they should be applauded for and in any way that I can, as executive director of KSBA, reinforce those board members, I look forward to doing that.