Wanted: Proven leader, passionate about children, supportive of school choice and educational options, commitment to performance-based compensation, good communicator, adept at innovative money management strategies.
And we DO mean adept at innovation. As in, how the heck do we make up a $30 million budget shortfall in a county where low taxes are a mantra and the board of education is viewed by some as an extension of the county Republican Party, yet parents still expect their kids to academically outperform every other school district in the state?
That’s no easy task facing the next Douglas County superintendent of schools, so the school board is doing its homework to improve the odds of finding just the right person for the job. The board has hired a search firm and hopes to begin interviewing candidates by mid-March, and to have someone in place by summer. The new superintendent will replace Jim Christensen, who resigned last fall.
On Monday, board members spent nearly two hours picking the brain of Rick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a pro-business Washington think tank with deep ties to the neo-conservative movement. Hess is long-time supporter of charter schools, merit pay for teachers, innovative staffing policies and other strategies that depart from school district business as usual.
“We have historically given a great deal of latitude to our superintendents. We have a culture of not meddling in the details too much,” said board chairman John Carson. “We want to maintain that. We want to set the direction of the ship but the person we hire will run it lock, stock and barrel. What should we be looking for?” he asked Hess. “Do we want a conventional superintendent? Someone with a non-conventional background?”
Hess’s advice: “There’s no magic in being non-traditional,” he said. “In 20 years, we’ve tried an array of generals and lawyers. What matters is the context in which you bring in that new leader, the teams they build, the systems at their disposal, the data, the staff, and their skills and knowledge. So don’t think that if you just get the right coach everything else figures itself out. Getting that right leader is just one piece of a larger puzzle.”
Is the board looking for its next superintendent to implement practices that currently don’t exist in K-12 education? If so, then look for someone outside the field of education, Hess advised. “But to the extent that what you want to do is build on what is already familiar, do a better job with things that are familiar to K-12 education, then someone from inside would be better,” he said.
On the surface, running the 55,000-student Douglas County school system would appear to be a plum assignment. Its students are at or near the top of virtually every measure of academic achievement in Colorado. Decades of fast-paced residential growth have left it with new buildings, thriving campuses and a top-notch reputation. The communities it serves are high-income. Few Douglas County children confront the poverty-related difficulties borne by some neighboring school districts.
Yet all is not rosy. In 2008, Douglas County voters declined to approve school district requests for a bond issue and mill levy override. That, combined with cuts in state funding, have produced the current budget dilemma. More than 1,000 community members turned out for a board meeting last week at which the topic was proposed budget cuts. On the table are increases in fees parents must pay, along with staff cutbacks and larger class sizes.
Beyond the immediate need to balance the district’s budget, a recent survey of faculty, administrators, parents and community members consistently found concerns about the influence of partisan politics on education in the district, concerns about staff morale, issues of trust, the need to redefine the district’s merit pay policies, and the perception that public statements made by board members have devalued the quality of education in the district.
For whatever reason, fewer people have expressed interest in the Douglas County job than one might expect.
“The numbers of candidates, generally speaking, are smaller than they have been in the past for other searches,” acknowledges Ellen Bartlett, former assistant superintendent for Douglas County Schools, now an associate with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the executive search firm that’s spearheading the district’s search. “I think that’s a sign of the times,” she said.
“The financial issues we’re experiencing in Colorado are similar to what people are experiencing across the country. I can’t say for sure whether Douglas County’s budget situation is making a difference in candidates’ decision to apply or not. School districts everywhere are facing hard financial times. It’s just a matter of degree.”
Bartlett said some very strong candidates have already emerged in the hunt, however, and that the district should be able to meet the timeline it set for itself.
Based on the results of the survey, which also asked the various constituent groups to rank the characteristics they’d like to see in a new superintendent, the board on Feb. 11 settled on its search criteria.
They want their new superintendent to be passionate about success for all children, supportive of school choice, and committed to merit pay.
They’re attracted to someone with a non-traditional background – maybe someone like John Barry the retired U.S. Air Force major general who has transformed the struggling Aurora Public Schools into one of Colorado’s most intriguing education stories – but that’s not a deal breaker. But they want someone with a track record of success in leadership, strong public relations skills, visibility within the community, and yes, a strong understanding of innovative money management strategies.
They want a politically savvy innovator, a charismatic leader, a motivator and a creative problem solver who is accessible, open and responsive to parents, staff and the community, someone with outstanding interpersonal skills and the courage to do what’s right for children.
“We just need a leader,” says Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers – a group that saw voters in the fall elect every one of the four candidates it opposed in the school board election. “And if they’re unconventional, then they need to be able to move the community in that direction along with them.”