Saturday, October 13, 2012

Role of a School Board, Part 2

This is a continuation of a series which began here.

I believe the role of a governing board - for any institution - is as follows:

  • Represent the Owners of the Institution
  • Determine the Mission of the Institution, and set the Boundaries within which the Mission is to be carried out
  • Hire Executives to Execute the Mission - within the Boundaries
  • Provide sufficient Resources to the Executives to enable Success
  • Monitor the Performance of the Institution relative to the Mission and Boundaries, holding the Executives accountable
Each of those points merits a substantial discussion, and shelves of books have been written on these topics. We'll touch on only the first three in this article.

A rare and awesome responsibility has this week been placed upon the Hilliard School Board: The hiring of a new Superintendent, the Chief Executive Officer of our school district. This comes about with the announcement by Dale McVey that he would be retiring at the end of the school year, June 30, 2013.

In the 30 years my family has lived in the Hilliard Schools community, we've had just two Superintendents: Roger Nehls and Dale McVey. Roger was on board at the beginning of the exodus of families from Columbus City Schools to the suburbs, brought about in the late 70s in reaction to the order of Judge Robert Duncan in Penick vs. Columbus Board of Education to implement district-wide student busing to racially rebalance the Columbus City schools. Roger resigned in 1999 to become an Assistant State Superintendent with the Ohio Department of Education. Dale, who was then serving here as an Assistant Superintendent, was asked to serve as Interim Superintendent at that time, and was named Superintendent six months later. There is a good article about Dale's exemplary career on the district website.

It has been 13 years since a Hilliard Board of Education has had to hire a new Superintendent. If my records are correct, the members of the School Board at that time were Libby Gierach, Tom Calhoon, Doug Maggied, Linda Mirarchi, and Curt Bishop. So of the current School Board members, only Doug has been through this process before.

It is an interesting time to be searching for a Superintendent -- we're not the only district around here looking. With Dale's retirement, we now have the Canal Winchester, Columbus, Dublin, Upper Arlington, Westerville, and Whitehall School Boards all looking for a new chief executive at the same time as us.

So what should we look for in our new Superintendent?

The Upper Arlington community is tackling that question by running a series of focus group sessions, which happen to have been held this week at my church, Mountview.  With permission, I sat in on a couple of those sessions just to see what they were about. There was a group just for Principals, another for the teachers' union, and another for the staff union. The PTO Presidents had their own sessions, as did the UA Education Foundation. In all, there were more than a dozen separate focus group sessions, including several open to any resident of the community. The sessions were facilitated by consultants from the recruiting firm that has been retained by their School Board.

The couple of sessions I observed - one with the PTO Presidents and one with the Education Foundation - collected a lot of the same information: UA is an well-educated community of accomplished folks, most of whom moved there because of the reputation of the UA schools, and their expectations are very high. They told the consultants that there is a "UA Way" to get things done, and the new Superintendent needs to respect that. But I also heard a couple of folks remark that it's sometimes difficult for new people coming into the UA community to be accepted into positions of influence.

I'm not trying to defend or refute anything I heard in these sessions. UA and Hilliard each have their own character, so what is felt there may or may not have much in common with our community. I described their approach just to let you know what at least one other School Board is doing to carry out their search. Our Board will begin this discussion at our next meeting.

The occasion of hiring a new Superintendent presents the opportunity to recalibrate the relationship between the Board and the Superintendent. At our Retreat last week, I observed to the other Board members that the governance of our District is very much driven by a strong Superintendent in Dale McVey. Our Board takes a Follower role, as can be seen in the agenda of any of our regular meetings. With rare exception, the agenda is limited to those things which by law must come before the School Board, and each resolution starts with "Superintendent recommends...."

Other school boards handle things differently. I particularly like the structure employed by some, who use one meeting each month to deal with the routine items requiring board approval, and then use the other meeting to delve into key aspects of the operation of the school district. What is examined, and when the discussion is to occur is scheduled far in advance. For example, every February, the Board may focus its time on transportation issues. Curriculum may be addressed each October, and technology each April. This strikes me as more productive than trying to concentrate all those discussions into an annual Retreat lasting a total of ten hours each year.

But the real question is "Who is in charge?"

The Dispatch ran an editorial this week on this subject. While the particular point of this editorial was to criticize school boards who allowed their access to district employees to be limited by their administrators (not the case in Hilliard by the way), the broader issue is in regard to the built-in tension between a governing board and the executives they hire as to who gets to make the big decisions.

The really good leaders want to have as much autonomy as they can get away with. I'm reminded of a scene in the movie "MacArthur," where the General, in the midst of his struggle with President Truman over who would dictate strategy during the Korea War, remarked to an aide: "My job would be so much simpler if I didn't have to deal with these temporary residents of the White House."

I can understand Superintendents feeling this way as well. After spending decades gaining skills, understanding, and experience as to how to make a complex organization like a school district function effectively, along come these yahoos - most with no education background - who get elected to the School Board every couple of years and try to tell the Superintendent what to do, and how to do them.

During Dale McVey's tenure as Superintendent, we've had fifteen different people serve on the School Board. It could have been as many as 20 different folks, but a number have successfully run for re-election, including Doug Maggied who is now serving his fifth term.
click to enlarge
I find it interesting that in the years when three Board seats come up for election, the incumbants tend to run for re-election and retain their seats. Conversely in the years when only two seats are up for grabs, it seems that either the incumbent decides not to run again, or gets defeated in the bid for re-election. Doug Maggied is the anomaly, as he was defeated by Denise Bobbitt in 2001, but came back to win a seat again in 2003, which he has held ever since.

In my role as an executive in private industry, I had many occasions to be called before our Board of Directors to defend a program we had planned, especially when it had large dollar amounts attached to it. While being very smart and accomplished folks in their own realms, rarely did the Board members understand the technology involved, the complexity of the process, or the importance of the program to our mission. 

Nonetheless, they represented the owners of the company - the shareholders - and it was their money I was asking for. Consequently, the burden was on me to make the case for the program in terms they could understand. And yes, it was helpful when the Board membership was stable, and we didn't have to be teaching new folks about the business all the time.

So perhaps the question is not only what kind of Superintendent we want, but also what kind of School Board we want to be. Or more correctly, what kind of school board do you - the voters of the community - want us to be?  You are after all the 'owners' of the school district. It's not the Administration, or the teachers, or the staff. It's not even the kids. 

It's the voters.

Our job as a school board is to represent your wishes in the governance of the school district. What should we strive to keep the same?  What should we change?

Your respectful dialog is welcomed.


  1. I bet ultimately the new Super will be hired from within. I also bet it will be Steve Estepp.

  2. Paul, what are the contraints or parameters that define the population from which we can choose a superintendent?

    1. The primary one I know of is that the candidate must hold a current Superintendent's license that's recognized by the Ohio Dept of Education. The ODE maintains a database of educator credentials.

      I wouldn't trust that it is current, but as of today, it lists the following folks in our school district who hold a Superintendent's license:

      Jennifer Adams (Asst Principal, Davidson HS)
      John Bandow (Principal, Davidson HS)
      Joyce Brickley (Principal, Heritage MS)
      Steve Estepp (Exec Director, Curriculum)
      Doug Lowery (Principal, Brown ES)
      Ryan McClure (Principal, Darby HS)
      Kayla Pinnick (Principal, Scioto Darby ES)
      Dave Stewart (Principal, Bradley HS)
      Craig Vroom (Principal, Weaver MS)

    2. I would change Estepp's title to Superintendent. Then I would eliminate the Curriculum Director position....

  3. It seems a successful board / superintendent relationship would be one in which each understands and respects their own and the other's roles. I'm not sure we've had that here to date.

    The board must understand and take ownership of it's role to lead the district and to represent the voters, but it also must understand and respect that the superintendent knows the system and situation better than they. The Superintendent must understand that, as the more knowledgeable party, he or she must inform the board fully of the issues at hand and make recommendations, but that it is the board that ultimately is accountable to the voters and must bear the responsibility for decision making.

    In other words a partnership where each respects the strengths and roles of the other. It seems, as you've said, we've had a strong superintendent and a board that largely followed his lead. I hope that this change affords a chance to move to a more balanced and respectful approach.

    1. This begs the question of what criteria the voters use when selecting school board members. Remember, that first, a set of individuals must come forward and make the decision to run. From that set of individuals, board members are elected.

      As the chart above shows, the tendency in this community is for the incumbents to run for re-election, and being successful doing so. That would suggest that the community accepts, and perhaps even desires having a board that follows a strong superintendent, rather than one which asserts its authority.

  4. I'll just throw in the obvious.

    McVey was, contrary to popular opinion, got a good SI. Yes, he did get some things done, but there are some glaring omissions, the largest of which is a lack of any kind of long-term financial planning.

    If he were a private industry CEO like myself, he'd have been fired a long time ago.

    Look, the new SI has to understand that the state of education is changing, whether public school proponents like it or not. A couple of weeks ago I read a piece that projected that within 15 years, half of the public school buildings in the state would be vacant as more and more kids moved to online learning.

    As a parent I can believe that. Schools in Hilliard provide a middling-to-fair education. (Sorry, but it is in no way as good as the employees of HCSD would like us to think.) Kids that want to excel are starting to see that their best opportunities lie outside the schools themselves.

    If we don't adapt to the obvious, we will fail the remaining kids.

    So, to the obvious issue: the new SI **MUST** understand finances. ANY program proposed must come with a detailed plan to pay for it.

    Paul, I know you agree with the finances issues -- might I suggest that your re-election will be much easier if you start to take a leading role with the community in ensuring that we get someone who actually recognizes this?

    Otherwise, those of us with young kids are going to be left picking up the pieces in 10-15 years time.

    1. One could argue that Mr. McVey ran the school district in exactly the manner the School Board wanted. His contract was renewed at least a couple of times, and no Board during his tenure felt the need to give him a formal performance appraisal.

      And how can we make the argument that Dale doesn't understand finances? The district has never run out of money, and the spending has always been adapted to the funding - even though it often takes a couple of attempts to get a levy passed.

      My primary criticism has always been about community relations. It is the community that doesn't understand school economics, and in the word 'community' I include not only the voters, but also the employees of the district.

      That's bringing us every closer to the point where all the goodwill that our community has invested hundreds of $millions to build could be lost in an ugly confrontation between voters and the school leadership. South Western almost went over the cliff a few years ago. Westerville is teetering on the edge right now. Upper Arlington, which is largely defined by its high regarded school district, is facing formal opposition to their levy this year.

      I've spent the better part of a decade trying to drum up interest in a dialog about school economics in our community. I very much appreciate all the folks who read this blog, and especially so those like you who engage in the dialog.

      But frankly, most folks don't seem to care.

      But you know what, in private industry, a company that expects the public to seek them out and - on their own - to evaluate their products wouldn't last long, unless they're called Apple. Most companies need to make an well-designed and sustained effort to reach new prospective customers, and to nurture the relationship with existing customers.

      I think school districts need to do the same. A school district needs to think of itself as a retail services enterprise, in my opinion, and have a marketing plan consistent with that perspective.

      I think the skill set we need in our next superintendent is about marketing, not finance.

  5. As always, I appreciate your insightful analysis of this situation.

  6. That is a lot of Superintendents that are retiring all at the same time (7 out of 16 Franklin County districts). Coincidence? Or is there a window of opportunity (e.g. retirement benefits with STRS that will be changing) that will be closing? Unfavorable political climate with more cuts coming for School funding from the State and tired of the challenge of generating revenue (or cutting costs)?

    Almost 50% turnover should raise eyebrows.

    1. Certainly, the recent changes to the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) is motivating those superintendents who have hit 35 years of service, as has Mr. McVey, to retire now. For example, the current benefits allows any STRS member with 35+ years of service to retire with a pension benefit of 88% of their last three year's salary (Final Average Salary, or FAS). But after 2015, this drops to 77%. For a Superintendent with a FAS of $150,000, this drops the annual pension from $132,000 to $115,500, or $16,500 less per year.

      I don't blame Mr. McVey for retiring this year. It's a relatively quiet year in terms of school governance. It means he's participated in his last negotiations with the teachers' union and the staff union. It means he won't have to experience another levy campaign.

      I don't know how much of this is true for the other superintendents, but I suspect that it's the common thread, and it won't be true for just Franklin Country. I'd guess there will be a fairly large number of public school educators - including teachers, administrators, and staff - who will be bailing out prior to 2015, when the new retirement system rules go into effect.

  7. I was thinking about you as I read Mr. McVey's news.

    As we compare our district to the others in supt searches, another question comes to mind. Which applicants would choose Hilliard over the others (e.i. UA)? It seems like that will be a good interview question.

    Your board history was interesting too. Many of those names are familiar, but some are not. Perhaps I wasn't paying enough attention then.

    Finally, is "yahoo" a WV term, never mind!

    Thanks for your insight and thought provocation.

    Be well. ce

    1. You touch on an important point, with so many good - and fairly well-heeled - districts looking for superintendents, a real bidding war could erupt. And we won't just be competing on the basis of comp and benefits. Most prospective superintendents will also want to feel good about the finances and the level of community support, both of which are generally measured (by educators) by the district's levy passage history.

      Wouldn't it be interesting to find a candidate who says he/she can maintain the perceived and actual quality of our school district, and not need to grow spending by 4% per year, which is the current forecast?

    2. that candidate who says he/she can whatever smacks of campaign promises.

      but if the candidate says here's HOW we match spending to we're talking.

  8. I just saw a notice from the Ohio School Boards Association that they're helping these districts search for a new Superintendent as well:

    Chardon (Geauga)
    River Valley (Marion)
    Winton Woods (Hamilton)
    Oakwood (Montgomery)

    There are no doubt some number of others who have retained either their local Education Services Center or a private search firm to find a Superintendent.

  9. Paul, as usual you have provided some valuable research and background on this as well as many other issues. The Hillard School District should be so thankful you are spending the requiste time and effort to keep everyone informed.

    I am sure everyone wishes Dale an appropriate thank you for all of his hard work, even though we may not allways agree.

    The key point is will the entire board step up to the plate now and truly represent the electorate instead of special interest groups.

    I am hopeful our board will also begin to take charge and be more vocal as a group and individuals beside yourself
    of course in matters of new zoning developments that will have a severe impact on our student growth.

    Interesting our council member who is running for state rep has been in lockstep with allowing new unchecked development that add numbers to our schools which is a tax increase shift from the state, and publicly stated that local levies are the most favorable because it has control
    supposedly at the local level. A property tax is a regressive tax for the schools as the homeowner immediately getts the bill ! Apprarrently Ms Kunze will
    be ok, with taxincreases at the local level but not have the state provide needed funds, and she supports the rollback in state aid that we had. More HIliard voters
    need to know this, and her qualifications have simply to vote in lockstep with the current admin. NO leadership there.