Finally a Superintendent: Now What?

What graduate school didn’t cover: Dealing with fires, angry parents and mountain lions simultaneously by Bob Schultz

In preparation for the superintendency, I was a teacher for 16 years and an administrator for 10 more. I completed the California School Leadership Academy, the state’s two-tier administrative training program, and the Superintendents Academy put on by the Association of California School Administrators and then served another six years as an assistant superintendent.


However, when I finally was selected to be a superintendent, I felt like Robert Redford’s character in the movie, “The Candidate,” when the reality of winning the election set in. All of my training and my experiences led me here, now what should I do? One eventful day and one conversation with a junior high class helped me answer that question.

During the third week of school after taking the top post, I was invited to speak to a junior high leadership class about my current job and the career path that led me there. After telling them about what drew me into education and all of the jobs I’d held along the way, I opened things up for questions. One student asked me to describe the difference between being a teacher and being a superintendent. I thought I had a good answer.

Bell Ringing

“When I was a junior high teacher,” I explained, “I knew that at a given time the bell would ring and a group of 30 or more students would join me for a lesson that would proceed more or less as I planned it. That lesson would go on for a set period of time until the next bell rang and those students would leave and be replaced by another group of students. At the end of the day I would have some papers to take home and grade and lessons to revise or plan and then the process would repeat.

“Now that I’m a superintendent, this is what last Friday looked like when I came in to work on today’s presentation.” I pulled out my personal digital assistant and showed the class the one appointment on the screen for the previous Friday, a meeting with a neighboring superintendent to discuss the process for making an appointment to the board of education.

“That was what the ‘lesson plan’ was for that day. However, as the superintendent, I now realize that every phone call and every person coming through the door could send me off on a whole new adventure. Let me tell you what really happened that day.

“I arrived at work at 7 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 3, the 10 th day of school and the day before the Labor Day weekend. On the previous Friday the county had decided to pave the road in front of the district office, which happens to be where the buses pull in. This meant our buses had to wait for 20-30 minutes for pilot cars to take them through so buses were late throughout the first Friday of school. My call to the contractors when I received this news two days earlier had been to no avail, but the angry parents who called to complain didn’t really care why it happened. Our district buses were late, so it was obviously our fault.

“We survived that Friday and I was confident that this second Friday would be smoother. After reviewing and responding to the e-mail and voice mails that had come in since I left at 5:30 p.m. the day before, I was preparing some notes for that leadership class talk. At about 8 a.m. a phone call came in from the local police department. They had received a report of a man in a black SUV videotaping children at a bus stop. I called our transportation coordinator to tell her to alert the drivers to be on the lookout for anything unusual. She thanked me for the information, and said, ‘By the way, did you hear about the bus fire?’

“I learned that one of our special education buses had an electrical fire and had to pull the bus to the side of the road. The single student on board and the driver were now standing on the side of the freeway waiting for a back-up bus. I envisioned a mother sitting at home watching the report from the news helicopter showing her little darling on the side of a freeway. I told transportation to find that mother and let her know immediately her son was fine. The mother was alerted, a second bus picked up the child and got him to class.

“Knowing that child was safe, I got in my car and drove the portion of the route where the videotaping had been witnessed, looking for anything suspicious. We learned that two drivers had witnessed what might have been videotaping at two different locations, so we passed that information on to the police, along with the time of routes in those areas for the remainder of the day.

“I prepared a memo to go out to parents to alert them to the videotaping incident and to ease their mind about the bus fire and had it almost ready to go when I got a call from a secretary at one of the schools. ‘What should we do about the mountain lion?’

A Roaming Beast

“It turns out that some people had reported seeing a mountain lion in the area early that morning and an animal control officer was going to schools to warn them. They hadn’t contacted the district office, so I called and eventually got in touch with someone to learn the full story.

“With a three-day weekend coming, I didn’t want any parents sending their children or pets out to play with a mountain lion so I added the warning about the mountain lion to the warning about videotaping and the note about the electrical fire and sent the memo out to all parents just before I headed off for the one meeting that was on my PDA.

“After learning the challenging details of how to replace a school board member who had just announced his resignation, I felt my cell phone vibrate. Our assistant superintendent was on the line asking if I’d heard about the fires. I said I knew about the electrical fire that morning. ‘No, not that fire, the fires that are blocking our bus routes.’

“It was a windy day and a quickly moving brush fire was preventing our buses from dropping children off in a neighborhood threatened by the flames. I hopped in my car in the neighboring district, which was southwest of our district and headed for the fire area, which was on the far northeast side of the district. As I drove, I kept my eye out for signs of smoke, for wild animals and for strange men with video cameras.

“By the time I got to the fire scene, I had no further camera men or mountain lion sightings and I could see that the fires were under control. I gave the word to let the stranded children go home and headed back to the district office. After making sure that all of the children had been safely picked up by parents or taken safely home, I breathed a sigh of relief that this day was over.

“Or so I thought.

“When I got back to my office, there was a phone message waiting for me. ‘How dare you hire criminals to work in our schools?’ the angry voice shouted. ‘That desperate inmate could have grabbed my child before he sped away from the park in that stolen truck.’

“I contacted the local parks people who were in the process of building a park across the street from one of our schools. The typically underfunded parks commission had a long-standing practice of bringing in ‘trustees,’ which is what they call nonviolent criminal offenders working off short sentences to help build their parks. This fact had stayed below the radar until one of the trustees became tired of working in the middle of that special day and stole a county truck that someone had conveniently left the keys in and slipped away. I made it abundantly clear that hearing about this from a parent who heard about it from the media wasn’t the way I should have received that information and, that if the parks folks would like me to send one of my playground supervisors over to train their supervisors on keeping a better eye on the ‘kids,’ I’d be glad to help.

“Of course, when I called back the upset parent, comments about how this was a county parks issue beyond my control went over just as well as my explanation of why the buses were late the week before. It didn’t really matter whether I was in control or not. I was the superintendent and I should have taken care of the problem.

A Student Encounter

“About 5:30 p.m. I decided everyone had gone home for the weekend, so it was safe to leave. About a block from the office, I came upon an automobile accident scene. I pulled over and checked to see if anyone was hurt or needed a cell phone. A high school kid needed to call home since his little economy car had plowed into an SUV that had slowed for a turn. No, the SUV wasn’t black and the driver didn’t have a video camera.

“I overheard the young man’s side of conversation as he called home: ‘Please let it be Mom, please let it be Mom. ... Hi, Dad! Guess what? Do you remember that curve where Susan had that accident the year she got her license? Guess what? I had an accident in the same place. ... Yes, it was my fault, but nobody got hurt. You’ll be right here? Great.’

“He handed me back the phone and said simply, ‘I’m dead.’

“As I drove home I realized that despite the crazy day I’d just had, I would still rather be in my shoes than his at that moment.”

Personal Benefits

The students in the class agreed with my assessment, asked a few questions and thanked me for coming in. After leaving, I thought about what I learned from the events of that dubious day.

• The urgent can push out the important.
The only student I had any contact with that day was the poor young man waiting for his dad at the scene of an accident. As a principal I had blocked out time to do classroom visitations and I realized I’d have to do the same thing as superintendent. On days when my first-scheduled meeting is late in the morning, I now start the day at a school site instead of my office. I carry my cell phone and the office can reach me for anything critical, but what is important is that I really know what is happening on a day-to-day basis in our schools.

• You have to be ready to take decisive action. Although I need to schedule my day to ensure I make time for the important goals the board of education, staff and I have established jointly, there will be times when I need to quickly shift directions and take care of more pressing issues. Although President Bush survived reactions to his sitting and listening to a story as the terrorist attacks on 9/11 unfolded, those of us in our school district office were on the phone to our schools and to transportation when we heard the news so we could let our staff and the community know that their children were not in danger. Sometimes, you just have to make a decision and act on it.

• The buck stops here, even when you have no control.
The angry parents didn’t care that the road paving and the park work were under someone else’s jurisdiction and not something I was able to change. They put their children in my care, so the responsibility was mine. That simply means that I have to be sure that my voice is heard at the city, the county, the state and even at the national level as I work with agencies that affect the lives of our children. I can disagree with some of the details of No Child Left Behind and express concern that I have to do things I wouldn’t necessarily choose to do, but it is the law of the land. No matter what I do behind the scenes, to the community I am the local arm of the education system so I need to make it work.

• Communication is your lifeline.
This lifeline goes two ways. First of all, I have to demand that the local media and government agencies contact me quickly when things are happening that will affect our schools. Earlier contacts could have changed the timing of the road construction and given me warning about the trustee escape.

Communication is also a lifeline to our community. The response to my memo that day and to subsequent memos that dealt with safety issues and other concerns has been almost universally positive, even when people didn’t like the message. They appreciate that we sometimes over-notify people of potential concerns because it reinforces the fact we’re not trying to cover up things we don’t want them to know. This is especially true when something doesn’t go well. Your informal grapevine will get the word out, whether you want it out or not, so you might as well take control and build their trust by giving them the truth even when it hurts. The young man who owned up to his responsibility on the phone to his dad still had some real consequences to face, but I hope his dad appreciated the way he accepted responsibility for his actions.

• Learn from your mistakes or you’ll repeat them.
I also might suggest learning from your successes or you won’t know how to repeat them. Take the time to reflect on your day, your week, your year on a regular basis and think about what you learned from the experiences. If something worked, why did it work? If something didn’t go the way you planned, find out what steps you left out or what you didn’t anticipate. Monitor the politics of the board, the community and the staff so you can be pro-active instead of reactive to the world around you. Don’t rely on random acts of success to make you think you’re in control and don’t let the same problem surprise you more than once.

• Remember why you’re here.
You didn’t obtain your current job by accident. You made a conscious decision to come into education and after some time in another role you also made a decision to become an administrator. If you start feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated, think back on what you hoped to accomplish as you made each decision in your career path. You consented to being here.

• No guru. No method. No teacher.
Singer Van Morrison had an album with that title and, unfortunately, it is a reality. There is no instruction manual or class or mentor who can possibly give you all of the information you need to be a successful school or district leader. Learn all that you can, but at some point you have to have the courage and integrity to take all that you’ve learned and experienced and put it in practice. As I heard someone describe this job, it’s like changing a tire on a car moving down the freeway. Be ready for quite a ride.

• Be a lifelong learner.
Putting all of that together, a good superintendent has to be the personification of the resilient, reflective lifelong learner you tell your community you want your graduates to be. Looking back on my conversation with that leadership class, I realize now my answer exaggerated the difference between being a teacher and being a superintendent. Upon closer consideration, my rundown here of what a good superintendent must be is also the vision of what a good teacher must be.

Maybe a good superintendent is simply a good teacher with a larger class, a few more parents and a shorter summer.

Bob Schultz is superintendent of the Eureka Union School District, 5455 Eureka Road, Granite Bay, CA 95746. E-mail: bschultz@eureka-usd.k12.ca.us