Sunday, July 03, 2016
What kind of superintendent does Joplin R-8 need?
The ultimate choice of a superintendent, however, belongs to the seven people who sit on the Board of Education.
Ray and Associates will cast a nationwide net to find qualified candidates and there should be a considerable interest in this job. The naysayers in the community are saying no one will want this job because there has been turmoil in the district over the past few years.
That does not seem to bother Ray and Associates, which recently handled the search for a new superintendent for Kansas City Public Schools and Kansas City has been bogged down with serious problems for decades.
Representatives from Ray and Associates told the board Tuesday that the board and the Joplin community would come up with specifications for what they want in a leader. After that, the search firm would seek candidates who fit those specifications.
So what do we want in a new superintendent?
Considering what this community experienced in the seven years of the C. J. Huff era, and what it continues to experience through the things that he has done and the members of his administrative team who remain in place, it seems there are some areas in which we should all agree.
We need an educator, not a businessman
Obviously, the next superintendent is going to have to be someone who can handle finances, considering the woeful state the district finds itself in due to the excesses of the Huff Administration. That being said, it is time that Joplin hired someone who knows what it is like to be in the classroom. For the past several years, the two leaders of the school district, Huff and former Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer, were people who set their sights on administration from the day they began their educational careers, with neither spending more than a couple of years in an actual classroom. We can't repeat that mistake again. The most important job of any school district is to educate the children and that education takes place in the classroom.
That was forgotten for years in the R-8 School District as decisions were made with only the appearance of consulting those who were in the trenches. Not only did Huff and Besendorfer have scant experience in the classroom, but they surrounded themselves with people who had taken the same path and left teaching behind when the first opportunity presented itself.
This led to the disastrous decision to provide laptops to all high school students and iPads to all middle schoolers, forcing the teachers to gear all lesson plans through those devices, and casting textbooks and many library books aside.
From all appearances, the administration was more interested in establishing Joplin as a school where something called "21st Century education" took place. The teachers would have preferred that Joplin be known as a place where actual education takes place.
Instead of providing more space for books in what used to be called libraries, decisions were made increasing space for all kinds of different open areas that could be called innovative. Books became the casualty of this kind of thinking.
The lack of a teaching background certainly contributed to administrators' decisions to outsource professional development to whatever outside group was willing to take the responsibility off their hands. Under normal circumstances, administrators would seek feedback from the teachers about what kind of professional development is needed in the district or in their particular buildings. Veteran teachers should have been consulted because they know their schools better than anyone. Instead, veteran teachers were treated like the plague by the Huff Administration, which ran off more than half of the faculty in a four-year period, leaving the district with more than half of its teachers having five years or less of experience.
While it is vital to have a superintendent who can handle finances, it should be remembered that the superintendent is the educational leader for the district. Consider that JHS Principal Kerry Sachetta was promoted to assistant superintendent to allow Interim Superintendent Norm Ridder to concentrate on education and the classroom during his second year.
That is the primary area where leadership is needed.
We need a real communicator, not a public relations operation
The next superintendent must be someone who can communicate with people in the school system and in the community.
Over the past few years, that communication process has been completely one-sided. A leader does not necessarily have to be a great speaker to communicate,but he or she has to be a great listener. If the new superintendent comes in with a number of set ideas and is unwilling to adjust those to what the Joplin community wants, it will not be long before we are looking for a replacement.
Obviously, there are going to be times when an educational leader has to do things that are not going to please the teachers or the community, but this community will respect someone who is honest about the reasons for taking such actions and does not try to dazzle us with a taxpayer-funded spin operation.
With this school district facing a grim financial situation, the best thing a leader should do (actually it should be done before the new superintendent arrives) is to shut down our communications operation and go back to the old fashioned :"the buck stops here" approach.
While it might be necessary to have someone knowledgeable in writing news articles to provide press releases for the district, that certainly does not call for a communications director making $68,000 a year and an assistant, a communications specialist, making $43,000 a year.
Isn't it time that money was steered to the classroom?
The new superintendent needs an open-door policy, needs to be able to meet with the public both in group sessions and in a one-on-one basis, and needs to be willing to do something C. J. Huff was never able to do- admit when he or she has made a mistake. We all make mistakes. People can forgive most mistakes. What they cannot forgive are people who are unwilling to admit when they are wrong and try to finesse their way through situations with public relations gimmicks.
The superintendent has to be willing to be surrounded with strong leaders
One of the reasons the Joplin R-8 School District has fallen so far, so fast, is that C. J. Huff and Angie Besendorfer were not only uncomfortable with having people around them who were willing to question them, but they made sure those people were eliminated from the district as soon as possible.
What that ended up doing is leaving us with an upper administration team consisting mostly of people who were not qualified for the jobs they held and left the district with no capable replacements when Huff imploded.
Good leaders know that they need people who will challenge them and raise the questions that need to be raised before an action is taken. Sometimes people like that can help a superintendent avoid making a costly mistake. At the least, it provides the superintendent with another viewpoint to consider before making a decision. After that final decision is made, the assistant needs to be willing to go along with it, even if he or she disagreed, but the superintendents (and leaders) who make the most mistakes are the ones who are unwilling to allow anyone to challenge them.
The board's decision to hire Sachetta as an assistant superintendent was designed to provide not only Ridder but the new superintendent with a strong leader with experience and a depth of knowledge of the school district. That kind of thinking is a welcome change of pace (as is the fact that no one was chosen from Huff's thoroughly discredited leadership team).
The community consists of more than the Chamber of Commerce and the civic clubs
While it is important for a new superintendent to get to know and work with the business community, there are far too many leaders in education and politics who limit their networking with the community to the Chamber of Commerce and civic clubs.
The new superintendent needs to establish relationships with the vast majority of people in this school district who belong neither to the Chamber or Rotary Club or any other service organization.
While the business community is important and provides the schools with much of the support they need for various programs and functions, the decisions that the superintendent makes will have a far greater impact on parents, children, and taxpayers who will never pay dues to any of those organizations, but who keep their businesses afloat by supporting them as customers. It should also be remembered that the changes that have taken place on the Board of Education over the past few years have come as a result of political action taken by many people who decided it was time to take back their school district- people who were not connected with the business leaders.
Put these people on an equal footing with those who are considered to be the "community elite."
The decision that the Joplin R-8 Board of Education will make sometime in the near future will impact the children of this district for years to come. It is not easy to find an exceptional leader and it is especially difficult to find one who can come in and lift the spirits of a community that has watched while its treasury and the children's education have been plundered by self-serving opportunists.
The Joplin job will likely attract people who are willing to take on that challenge.
Let's make sure we choose the right one.