A SMOOTH TRANSITION DEPENDS ON AN EFFECTIVE ENTRY PLAN
Perhaps in no other context is governance team effectiveness more important than in that of school districts. The ubiquitous school board, an American institution, impacts virtually all children attending public schools.
There are many elements of a high functioning school district. One of those elements is a high functioning superintendent-school board relationship. Transitions within the governance team must be managed carefully to ensure effective communication continues throughout and after the process of change - regardless of whether a new board member(s) or a new superintendent is joining the governance team. Board members and superintendents should share the same interest in prioritizing superintendent-board communications.
A seamless transition in superintendent succession is critical to the stability of a school district. In the absence of a succession plan, uncommon unless for a planned succession for a Deputy or Assistant Superintendent, an entry plan is the key component in the transition process. An effective entry plan is a draft that includes activities and priorities for the first 90 to 100 days. It should be brought to the Board of Education at its last regular meeting prior to the official start date to gather their input and suggestions, in addition to their short list of their expectations for the first year of service. Trustees could also provide the names of key stakeholders to invite to a special conversation once in office.
The entry planning process begins when the superintendent is a candidate. The availability of on-line documents makes the process of learning about a district considerably easier than it was even five years ago. The Local Control and Accountability Plan, Single School Plans, collective bargaining agreements, school board minutes, budget and financial reports, local newspaper coverage, student demographic, achievement, suspension, and expulsion data, and accreditation reports are among the plethora of documents available to even novice information gatherers. This information is critical for a candidate to determine whether or not the conditions in the district and its needs are aligned with the experience and skill sets the candidate possesses. Learning all about the community is also important in the candidacy planning process to ensure the community is a good fit too.
Given the candidacy planning process yielded positive results, the next step is to develop an entry plan before the interview to ensure that careful consideration has been given to the critical first 90 days of service. There are no hard and fast rules for developing an entry plan, though most superintendents I surveyed for this piece have included the following components in their plans:
Arrange a meeting with each board member to develop a communication plan.
Compose a letter of introduction and welcome to send to all district staff on the first official day of service. The letter should focus on the superintendent’s desire to learn more about the district’s strengths, areas to improve, concerns, and any obstacles to the district becoming the best school system it could be.
All correspondence in the early stages of the relationship process should center on the district, not the superintendent. Who the superintendent is should emerge organically. It’s likely that stakeholder groups have connected with their peers in the new superintendent’s past district and already have an impression of who the superintendent is – any frontloading will come off as disingenuous if it’s not consistent with preconceived notions, making it more difficult to build support.
Identify key communicators and opinion leaders (respected staff, parents and community members who have something to say about the schools and whose opinions are respected by others and valued).
Arrange informal gatherings starting on day one to meet and greet as many members of the five major audiences (Trustees, administrative team, school district professional staff, school district support staff and the community at large) as possible.
Continue this action throughout the entire first year. These informal gatherings should focus on school-related issues such as the district’s annual report on student achievement, future planning conversations with neighboring districts, new initiatives, or the latest topic dominating the education landscape.
Develop a poll or survey tool utilizing as advanced a technology as available to gather information about a variety of topics, including the long-range picture in each stakeholder mind’s eye, expectations for the superintendent, academic standards, curriculum and programs, fiscal and human resources, climate, school improvement plans, and attitudes and beliefs.
Communicate the themes and trends from the survey to the five major audiences: the board of education, the administrative team, school district professional staff, school district support staff and the community at large. Present the information to establish baseline data to monitor the district’s future improvement progress.
Discuss the established meeting calendar with all stakeholder groups to determine when and how all group and site leadership team voices can be heard.
The goal of an entry plan is to hit the ground running in both the school district and the community. The first year of a superintendency could be very challenging, and even difficult, and should not be entered without a carefully crafted and well thought out plan of entry. First year superintendents reported to me that the inclusion of an entry plan, among their first steps, was instrumental to their eventual success. This opinion was supported by feedback they received along their first year journey. I have used entry plans for principal succession too and found them equally useful.
In a speech in 1900, Mark Twain said, "Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog." A lack of preparation in this critical organizational strategy can stop a school. Poor governance is often responsible for failing schools.
Of course, Mark Twain also said around that same period, "In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards." He should have included superintendents, because school boards are part of the governance team that includes the superintendent. If everyone does their job and stays in his or her respective lane no schools will be stopped and no additional jails will be necessary.