Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishments in Simpson County?
A: We have an amazing team here and a great culture. I believe if we want to raise student achievement, it’s about the people.
Q: Did you put that team and culture together?
A: Yes, the superintendent has a big stake in that. You set the tone and work with your board team and district and school leaders to set a clear course of how to make our vision, mission and goals happen, and you build a culture that’s going to help you achieve that. We have a student-centered, high-performance culture. I’m proud of the team we assembled, but I’m also proud of what our students have achieved. We were the first school district in Kentucky to require a college or career-ready credential for graduation. When we first embarked on that, some said, ‘Are you prepared for your dropout rate to skyrocket, graduation rates to plummet and bad outcomes to happen, because kids are not going to be able to do this.’ But we felt differently. We said if we raise the bar and put in the systems and processes students need, then they can and will do it. And sure enough, they did.
Q: What advice have you shared with Tim Schlosser, who will become superintendent in Simpson County?
A: Tim’s a wonderful leader who understands that people matter most in a school organization. That’s what I always tell new leaders, that it is about the people and relationships. I’ve seen a lot of superintendents come and go. When they leave under conditions that are less than desirable, it’s always a leadership issue. You’ve got to be a leader who focuses on people. That means building a strong relationship with your board where you focus on the most important things together. New superintendents often worry about technical issues like budgets. What I see is that people get so focused on the technical side they lose focus on the leadership and people side.
Q: What are some of your plans for KASS as you step into the role this summer?
A: We’ve got a big legislative session coming up next year and it’s a budget session. We will see again discussion and proposals around the pension issue. We’re certainly anticipating proposals around privatization. We’ve taken a strong stance in opposition of any privatization of public funds for education purposes and we’ll continue to oppose that. One issue is how to attract, retain and develop educators and school district leaders. What policy initiatives do we need to consider to ensure a strong teaching staff, school leaders and district leaders?
Q: Superintendent tenures in Kentucky are on the decline. Do you have any thoughts on why this is occurring?
A: If you look at enrollments in teacher education programs, we’ve seen declines. That’s a nationwide trend. In terms of superintendents, we have to help board teams understand that you see strong outcomes more consistently in districts with stable leadership. One reason I came to Simpson County is that they were looking for someone who would stay. I was interested in providing leadership over time and what you could do to change and build a culture that’s sustainable even after you leave. Our board team and community leaders will tell you it’s made a big difference for our school system to have stable leadership.
Q: Is additional training for superintendents part of your plans?
A: I want to discuss building an aspiring superintendents program with our board.
Q: What about superintendents who are already on the job?
A: We’ve also discussed follow-up training for first-term superintendents that would include modules in key areas. For example, modules for finance, construction and facilities, board teams, community relations – areas that a first-term superintendent might need help with and want to build their skill set and knowledge base. Also, Tom recently implemented the superintendent leadership academy. We’ve been thinking about its next iteration. How do you develop the executive leadership capacity of second-term superintendents and beyond? I’ll be meeting with the board to lay out some proposals, get their feedback and approve a strategic plan. We want to personalize training for superintendents by thinking about what they need at various times in their career.
Q: Trying to accomplish so much with tight budgets puts superintendents under pressure. Does that keep people from aspiring to the role?
A: It is a job that’s not for the faint of heart. You need a high degree of courage and to know what you value and believe. What I found is that if you consistently make decisions that align to your and the organization’s vision, mission and goal, and the values and beliefs, that even when you disappoint people, they’ll be OK.
Q: What’s your advice for how school board members and superintendents can work together best?
A: Every team’s foundation is built around trust, and trust comes through open, honest communication. Everyone has to be prepared for the difficulty that open, honest communication brings because it’s wrought with discourse, debate and sometimes arguments. We don’t surprise each other; we talk about things and at the end of the day we find areas that we can agree on and move forward. I keep a stuffed skunk on my conference table. It is a metaphor. You have to put the skunks on the table and talk about the smelly, uncomfortable stuff to find common commitment. There’s also a sign in our boardroom that reminds us that our decisions must improve student learning in some measurable way. Because if a decision doesn’t improve student learning, why do it?