Saturday, June 27, 2015

It's Your Circus, They're Your Monkeys...

My wife started a new job last week.  Superintendent of Schools.  Her first day in town and with nothing in the cupboard, she headed to the local grocery store early in the morning.  Incognito in ball cap and sunglasses at 7:00 AM, surely she could slip in and out quickly.  Experienced superintendents and board members know the inherent dangers of the grocery store and would never have attempted such a move, but she is new and a risk-taker.  You know how this ends… “Say, aren’t you the new superintendent?  There are a few things I would like to talk with you about….”

There are 58 new superintendents in Kansas this year.  Over half, 35, are brand new to the job, never having served as superintendents before.  These superintendents have all passed their preparation classes and taken their certification exams.  They have all honed their skills as principals and/or central office administrators.  They are smart men and women with good skills and a heart to make things better for kids.  But they have never sat in the superintendent’s chair.

 The part that is hard to learn from books is the personal side: 

  1. You are always the superintendent. Once you put on the hat, it doesn’t come off.  (Even if it’s a ball cap that you think makes you invisible in the grocery store at 7:00AM.) My dad, who has over 20 years experience in the superintendent’s chair, used to say “imagine someone is following you around with a video camera.”  Today, when everyone has a smartphone, you can be assured that someone is.
  2.  Your family will be affected. Your spouse and children will be treated differently. People with good intentions will give them special treatment, which can be even worse than treating them poorly because of a grudge against you.  Then there is always the knucklehead who thinks sending you a message through a son or daughter is a good idea. “Tell your mom we don’t like the….”
  3.  It’s lonely at the top. Any CEO will tell you that, and it is true in this job too.  People make friends with their co-workers, but your co-workers know that the relationship is different even if you don’t think it is.
  4. You live between the rock and the hard place.  Your job is to navigate that space between countervailing forces, parents and teachers, students and taxpayers, board members and staff, just to name a few.  There is inherent stress in that space.
A wise old superintendent described the job with this story:  Picture yourself walking through a meadow on a beautiful sunny day.  In the distance you see a row of trees, swaying in the cool breeze.  As you get closer, you see a little monkey out in front of the trees, jumping up and down and screeching as only a monkey can do.  He is throwing things and yelling at you.  But you think to yourself, it's only one monkey, I may get a little dirty, but I can deal with one little monkey.  So you walk closer and as you approach the trees you notice that the breeze has died down, but the trees are still swaying, the screeching is getting louder and all manner of stuff is being thrown at you.  The whole forest is filled with monkeys, and they are mad at YOU!  Every superintendent has a day or two like this.

Excited about that new job? Of course you are!  Because to quote War Daddy, it’s “the best job you ever had.” Every evening when you lay your head on the pillow, you do it with the knowledge that you did something to help kids today.  There is nothing like it in the world.


Board members, I write this for you as well as for the new superintendents.  You have a new member on your team.  Help them out whenever you can.  Set goals, set boundaries, set expectations and talk through them.  Be supportive, insightful and help them understand there will always be monkeys.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

It's the Economics, Stupid

When a crowd was assembling with torches and pitchforks before a board meeting, Paul McKnabb, a professor at Emporia State University and former Emporia Board Member, used to tell me “Democracy is a messy system and it attracts people with plenty of time on their hands.”  Paul is no doubt watching what is happening in Topeka right now and repeating some variation of that wisdom.  This mess may make more sense than it appears if we look at some data.

The Docking Institute at Fort Hays State University released its “Kansas Speaks” survey in Spring 2015.  The poll shows that the legislature is doing exactly what Kansans want.   How can that be?

When Kansans spoke, they were very clear on the subject of taxes.  The graph clearly says that Kansans prefer to increase sales tax the most and income taxes the least.  A large bloc of Kansas Legislators and the Governor are adamant that this is the best solution.  The will of the people is being done. But as Lee Corso likes to say, “NOT SO FAST!”

Kansans were equally clear on the subject of who should be taxed.  There is strong support to tax large corporations and top income earners.  Less than 10% support increasing taxes on the middle class and small business.  A large bloc of Kansas Legislators are adamant that taxes on corporations and the wealthy should be increased.  The will of the people is being done.

My colleagues at KASB make fun of me because I sometimes claim to be a trained economist.  (I taught 10th grade economics for three semesters.) They call me Economics Professor Emeritus from Lawrence High School.  But one doesn’t need my high level of economic expertise to see the paradox of the “Kansas Speaks” survey. 

Sales taxes, especially as they are structured in Kansas, put more burden on the poor and middle class and less on “Top Income Earners” and “Large Corporations.” Income taxes are the fairest way to tax those two groups.  Property taxes take a larger percentage from middle class farmers and homeowners. 

I speculate that if you asked most Kansans to define small business, 500 employees would not be their threshold.  In most Kansas communities, 500 employees would constitute one of the biggest businesses in town.  The Small Business Administration defines a small business as 500 employees, but in Kansas 53% of all businesses have fewer than 500 employees, and 36% have fewer than 100.

So it is no wonder the Kansas Legislature in messy right now.  We Kansans are sending them a mixed message.  Do we want higher sales taxes or do we want to tax top income earners and large corporations?  Do we want to tax mom and pop businesses or corporations?  It has never been a more important time to consider what you think and to let legislators know. 

I’m pretty sure that all 50 or so of my former students understand this paradox.  Maybe some of them could head up to Topeka and help us out of this mess.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Look Out Texas, Here Comes Kansas

Superintendent Tom Trigg is leaving Blue Valley School District to be the superintendent in Highland Park, Texas.  Look out Texas, here comes Kansas.  If Tom is able to do for Texas what he has done for Kansas, the state might just become something to emulate.

Most educators know what a great job the Blue Valley district does of educating students.  The district is always rated high for student achievement and excellent graduates. Blue Valley is a district that could rest on its laurels but never does.  Most also know the personal awards and recognition Tom has received, including Kansas Superintendent of the Year.  Kansas, of course, has many great districts and superintendents.

What sets Tom apart is that since becoming superintendent in Blue Valley, he has also worked to improve education for all Kansas students.  The easy road would have been to isolate the district and say that BVSD has little in common with the rest of the state.  Tom took the hard road, learning about districts all over the state by being active on the Council of Superintendents and with Kansas professional associations.  He built bridges between all Kansas schools by finding commonalities instead of differences. KASB benefitted as well, when Blue Valley Board Member Pam Robinson served as KASB President.

Tom recognized that by helping all kids, he could help "his kids" even more.  He provided leadership and took chances that have resulted in improvements for all districts in Kansas.  He has helped BVSD become a model for other districts, and he has been a mentor for other leaders across the state. When groups of Kansas school leaders meet to discuss issues, "What does Trigg think" is a commonly asked question.


Blue Valley is a better district because of Tom's commitment to Kansas.  Kansas is a better state because of Tom's commitment to Blue Valley.  That is leadership.  We will all miss Tom Trigg and wish him the best of luck.