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Leading Yellow Springs Schools a delicate balance

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Yellow Springs has a long history of stable school district leaders. With the exception of one two-year glitch, since the early 1980s village school superintendents have maintained an average tenure of 10 years — notable relative to the national average superintendent tenure of 3–6 years, according to the School Superintendent’s Association.

And according to former Superintendent Tony Armocida last week, his tenure from 1997 to 2007 was successful enough to warrant his return in 2010 as a temporary replacement after he had already retired.

“Mostly in Yellow Springs people were complimentary,” he said. “That’s why I stayed so long.”

Stability in school leadership has been a good thing, according to local resident Wally Sikes, who has been engaged with the local schools since the 1950s and is a retired consultant in public and private organizational development. However, maintaining a leadership team that always agrees is seldom possible, and the local schools struggle at times to balance the shared authority granted by the state to both the local school board and the school administration.

The threat from both the local district’s superintendent and treasurer to leave the district for other jobs in August is a recent example of that struggle. Many past and present school board members as well as school leaders saw what happened over the summer as a clear sign of a lack of communication between board members. And though the current board and school management team have worked together smoothly over the past three years, some believe that the board neglected to adhere to its own policies and overstepped its role as overseer into the position of manager. The mistake, also known as micromanaging, is a common one among board members, who are elected by the community to see that their policies are implemented but don’t get to say how, according to Dr. Richard Caster, a senior consultant in the board services division of the Ohio School Boards Association, or OSBA.

But some board members did not view what happened as micromanaging but rather fulfilling their responsibility to the community to make certain that they fully understood the proposals they were asked to approve. According to board president Benji Maruyama, “Every issue that comes before the board absolutely should be deliberated on as much as it needs to be,” otherwise the district risks the opposite of micromanaging: rubber stamping, which doesn’t serve the community well either, he said.

From the perspective of both those who would give more latitude to the district’s administrative managers and those who would keep the board more out front, the key to striking the right balance for the strongest leadership is all about communication. Most who spoke for this article agreed.

“It’s a dance,” according to board member Angela Wright. “Balance is everything.”

The roles as defined by the rules

Finding the right balance starts with knowing the policies that govern the management of the schools. According to Yellow Springs school board bylaws and policies (established in accordance with the Ohio Revised Code), the five-member elected school board establishes policies for the superintendent to administer. The board also hires and fires the superintendent and the treasurer and is the body legally responsible for the entire district’s welfare.

According to the same internal policies, the superintendent is the chief executive officer of the district and the primary professional advisor to the board. He or she is responsible for the development, supervision, and operation of the school program and facilities. Within that charge, the superintendent develops the curriculum, establishes and maintains a written educational plan consistent with the goals adopted by the board, establishes (with the treasurer) a budget and ensures operations adhere to it, and manages all school personnel.

To put it simply, according to Caster of the OSBA, “The board decides the what, and the administration decides on the how … Of course when you throw in the human factor it gets a little complicated.”

Another way to look at the roles is to view the superintendent as the educational expert and chief advisor to the board, and the board as the chief advisor to the community, Caster said. The community communicates its goals to the board, and the board makes sure that the administration accomplishes them. But the board doesn’t get to dictate the method by which the goals are attained, Caster said. The board’s job is strictly to make sure the job gets done — stop, he said.

“What if I [as a board member] set the policy and don’t like the way it’s done? Well, my only responsibility is to make sure it gets done,” he said.

On the other hand, administrators have a responsibility to keep the board informed of what’s going on in the schools and to provide monthly reports on the bigger, critical issues, such as employee contracts or new construction, Caster said. When board members don’t agree on how much information they need, the board as a whole “has an obligation to let the superintendent know what to expect,” in other words, how much information and how often it expects to receive it.

And because the board is made of five members, the board also needs to remember that its authority does not lie in the voices and interests of the individuals but in the board as a unit, or at least a majority.

“From a board member’s point of view, if you’re going to get something done, you need at least two colleagues to agree with you,” Caster said.

If a board feels the need to step in and provide more direction to the administrators, the mechanism they have at their discretion is the superintendent and treasurer’s evaluation. According to both board member Aïda Merhemic and leadership consultant Sikes, the board must agree on a clear set of metrics by which to evaluate its top administrators and then use it to communicate its assessment of how the team is implementing the district goals.

Interpreting the roles

It’s easy to make the rules, Caster said, but how different individuals interpret their roles in action can become complex.

“It’s a fine balance, which gets back to the who and the what,” he said.

According to former Yellow Springs school board member Mary Campbell Zopf, the surest way to keep the roles clear and everyone on a common course is to adopt and follow a district-wide strategic plan. The school district completed its Class of 2020 10-year Strategic Plan two years ago, in consultation with the entire school and local community, and is currently using it to guide the advance of the schools. According to Basora, the direction for the plan came largely from the community.

“Ultimately the schools belong to the community, not the principals, not the superintendent, not the staff,” he said. “My goal is to figure out where the community wants to go, and through the board, parents and the community, create a vision to implement it. That’s my charge.”

Easier said than done. The 2020 is an ambitious road map for a completely new project-based learning and teaching style with a set of strategies and metrics by which to implement and evaluate the fulfillment of its goals. (The 2020 plan can be found on the superintendent’s page of the Yellow Springs Schools website.) The district has charged itself with not only changing the current system but also finding an estimated $500,000 in private funding for professional development, all while continuing to manage the district’s day-to-day operations.

The stakes are high and there are still a lot of unknowns, according to board member Wright. While developing the curriculum is absolutely the superintendent’s discretion, the overall result of the transition is ultimately the board’s responsibility. And in order to gauge whether the plan that’s unfolding will yield the desired result, the board needs to know details such as budgets and timelines for the new teaching methodology, which have so far been limited, she said.

Mixed review of YSCAPE

One issue that some say needs clarification is the private fund known as YSCAPE, which was established to support the implementation of the 2020 plan. The fund, seeded by a $150,000 donation from former school board member Richard Lapedes, is owned and administered by the Yellow Springs Community Foundation. Its funds are to be dispersed by YSCF with advice from a seven-member advisory committee appointed by YSCF and the school district. Wright feels the board needs greater clarity and oversight on how the funds will be spent for the schools. Needing more information isn’t a judgement of the administrators, she said, but simply a way of promoting more dialogue to keep both the board and the public informed about what’s going on in the schools.

And if the curricular change is happening too fast for adequate dissemination of information, then she feels it is worth slowing down the transition so that leadership can regroup, and teachers, students and the community can feel more relaxed about the process.

“It’s the board’s responsibility to see that the district is following its goals,” she said. “We need evidence, time to think about issues, we need to question and get answers.”

Maruyama, too, said regarding YSCAPE that “the novelty of the arrangement presents us with new challenges,” including “who from the district is involved with YSCAPE’s determination of funding requests, and how those same requests are processed internally within the district.”

However, board member Sylvia Ellison believes the way the YSCAPE fund is managed is perfectly clear, with adequate oversight and transparency. In addition, its mission directly fills the district’s strategic plan goal to “develop new funding sources,” including private funds and initiating a comprehensive fundraising program. Such outside financial support is needed to carry out the strategic plan without overleveraging public dollars.

“This isn’t going to happen again for a long time — we’ve got good people in place, a strategic plan with actionable stuff and an avenue of financial support,” Ellison said. “Who accomplishes that in a public school system?”

Board members as individuals?

It’s okay for board members to disagree with each other on issues and to have robust, highly opinionated discussions and still be respectful of each other’s intent, according to Campbell-Zopf. But when disagreement arises, many interviewed for this article spoke of the need for the school board to come to a final decision and communicate direction with one voice. According to school board member Merhemic, the board only has authority as a unit, and individual members have very limited right to ask anything from administrators without the consent of the whole board, or at least a majority. Asking for information to clarify a recommendation is okay, but the board already receives “a wealth of information” and too much more would likely lead to overtaxing a hardworking administrative team, she said.

Basora agreed that receiving direction from various individual board members to research a topic or report in depth on a particular program without agreement from the whole board can get exhausting for administrators, especially if it doesn’t result in anything that benefits the district. For district Treasurer Dawn Weller, having a board that is engaged and asks questions is preferable to “boards with their heads in the sand.” However, she said, “being pulled in 500 different directions is not effective either… if it’s not important to three of five board members, then we don’t need to spend much time on it.”

The board should also trust in the decision it made three years ago to hire Basora and Weller to manage the district, board member Sean Creighton said last week. And with the board-approved strategic plan in place to guide the administrative team, the board doesn’t have to work so hard at trying to reinvent the schools anew each month.

“A responsible leader isn’t going to rubber stamp everything that is brought to the board,” Creighton said, but boards can get caught up in management issues when proposals that are really administrative in nature are brought to the board for approval. “For example when a curriculum change issue comes to us for approval and a board member disagrees or starts asking too many questions — then goes, wait, that’s a management issue!”

According to Merhemic, the board needs to learn how to give the administration, which is following the strategic plan, space to do their job.

Snags along the way

While complications in the relationship between the current board and administrative team have generally centered around communication and transparency, the situation intensified over the spring when the issue of grant spending arose. While some saw the board’s need for oversight as overreaching and others saw it as good for public information, the real issue, according to Weller was the significant amount of time the board took on a relatively insignificant issue that was never clearly articulated by a majority of the board, according to Weller.

The next openly controversial topics were the teachers and mid-level administrator contracts, both major recommendations from Superintendent Mario Basora, which the board hesitated at first to approve — for the teachers, because the salaries were $7,000 too high; for the administrators because the board feared the salaries were too low. Under strident pressure from teachers, parents and the community on both issues, the board ultimately approved one renegotiated contract and one as originally recommended.

But the events drew ire from a room full of parents, who at a special board meeting Aug. 3 expressed strong support for the schools’ teachers and administrators as well as grave concern that the board was not performing its duties according to its own bylaws — in other words that it was micromanaging.

According to board members Ellison and Merhemic, the administrators’ decision to seek work outside the district was not an overreaction. The details of the mid-level administrator contracts were in fact Basora’s decision to make, not the board’s, Ellison said in an interview last week.

That the board may be more demanding of their managers than the community has been can be a sign that the board isn’t keeping track of the pulse of the community, OSBA consultant Cheryl Ryan said in a recent interview.

“As the representative of the community, the board needs to stay in touch with where the community is at,” she said. “When the temperature of the water in the community is vastly different than that board’s, there needs to be more communication. Having the community working against the board is a problem.”

Divisions between the board and the administration and among board members themselves are not as deep as they have been perceived, according to Maruyama. The team as a whole has accomplished monumental advancement over the last four years, and the team should continue its collaborative leadership style, in which the board is given as much latitude as it needs to consider its options before making decisions.

“It’s important amongst the board that we be able to talk about issues and really be able to give constructive criticism and support ideas about why we think this should go one way or another,” Maruyama said. “If something comes before the board for a vote, it’s the responsibility of the board to deliberate until it’s reached its natural conclusion — anything else would be an abdication of its responsibility.”

Strong administrators, boards

School board members do have a standard to uphold, but so do the administrators who work for them. So just how visionary and self-initiating should the managers of a school district be and still be open to guidance from the board and the community? According to Caster, a dynamic and charismatic leader can be just as effective as one who hangs back and works more quietly, as long as the board has hired right for its needs.

“Smart boards assess the type of leader they need and go find him or her,” Caster said. But especially in a time of change, even a strong leader will be challenged to overcome resistance, which he likened to trying to push a finger into a balloon. Likewise, just after a new strategic plan has been adopted, according to Ryan of the OSBA a board would be very invested in the plan and “it’s natural that they’re asking a lot of questions at this point.”

According to Basora, in times of change, an organization absolutely needs a strong leader to keep the focus on its long-term goals. Without an administrative team that is living and breathing the implementation every day, the change will not happen. Districts can easily get distracted with constant mandates from the state — things he calls urgent but not that important in the larger scheme. Instead Basora prefers to focus on the 2020 Strategic Plan — a goal he calls critically important but not urgent. In order to stick to those priorities, the district needs absolute discipline to stay the course.

District treasurer Dawn Weller also feels that districts should allow administrators to have greater autonomy, something that Yellow Springs in general tends to support less than other communities she has worked for. In the village, for instance, many public boards “commission everything out,” which Weller is happy to engage in, but only when it yields results.

“There is often a lot of discussion here but not necessarily forward movement that follows,” Weller said. “We don’t want to be set up to be unsuccessful.”

For Creighton, having a strong administrative leader, and one who communicates well with stakeholders, is a positive thing for the district. And as long as leaders hew closely to the vision established by the community, the board has less reason to get involved, he said.

“It makes my job a lot easier,” he said.

Indeed, in 2010 the current board drafted its own set of Leadership Protocols, which include “no micromanaging,” “keep superintendent and treasurer out front leading the charge,” “public support for superintendent and treasurer,” and “board should respect and support majority decisions.”

But public schools function best when there is a shared responsibility between the board and administrators and an effective process for collaborative decision making, according to Maruyama. The board needs to be able to slow down the process to get informed on the issues. And the point is not to disempower administrators, but to allow all board members to ask questions and discuss issues in public without feeling obligated or pressured to move on before they’re ready, he said.

“It’s imperative that administrators feel empowered to point out how they think things should or should not go, and the board too needs to be able to have robust discussions about the issues as well, because it’s absolutely the board’s responsibility in the end,” he said.

Wright would also like to see more time given to collaborative leadership and less pushback when more information is needed by one side or the other.

Moving forward

The recent issues that arose within the school leadership may still linger, according to some current and past school board members. Former board member Bill Firestone attended Ohio School Board Association conferences every year to fine tune his understanding of his role and responsibilities as a board member. It took him almost a whole term (four years), he said, to feel completely confident that he understood it, and he would like to see more board members get educated about the nuances of their job.

According to both Merhemic and Firestone, sometimes Yellow Springers have a myopic view that they know better than anyone how to function on a board.

“We’ve got a good superintendent (maybe even a great one), good principals, good teachers — it has been and is a great situation,” he said. “A strong administration is always challenging because the board are all amateurs and the administrators are professionals … And the board tends to want to micromanage, maybe more than they should.”

Since coming to Yellow Springs, Basora has strongly recommended that the board attend annual or semi-annual training sessions conducted by experts in the education field, such as OSBA. The current board completed one local team building workshop a year in 2010, ’11, and ’12 but did not schedule one this year. And none were led by education experts. Though board members Merhemic and Ellison were willing to meet with OSBA trainers, the majority of the board disagreed, and the professional training never took place.

Two weeks ago the board discussed the possibility of team building this year. But because November’s election could replace up to three current board members, all agreed that any training would be most effective for the new board. Sitting board members committed to making professional training a priority for the new board.

Still, for the remainder of the current term, Maruyama said, it is incumbent on the parts of both board members and administrators to work together to improve the interaction on both ends. The district’s leaders have worked tremendously hard and accomplished significant goals, he said. It’s natural, he added, that the relationships have evolved and matured, and all involved need to find a new comfortable balance.

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