Wednesday, April 21, 2010

ICCSD's Triple Play: From Bezek to Murley to Meeks

April 21, 2010, 9:00 a.m.

[This is essentially the fourth in what is, as of this morning, a four-part series on the Iowa City schools search for a new superintendent: "School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways," April 16, 2010 (with links to 23 prior, related blog entries and other writing); "How to Pick a School Superintendent; And My Questions for Candidates," April 17, 2010; and "Bringing Home the Bacon and Bezek," April 20, 2010.]

Bezek Can Talk the Talk -- On Four Hours' Sleep
(Brought to you by*)

Last night was opening night for the ICCSD School Board's show, "Superintendent Search." Each of the Board members played themselves, and the role of the superintendent was played by Mark Bezek. All turned in impressive performances. For any community members who cared, there was also a "meet and greet" with the lead actor before curtain, from 6:15 to 7:00 -- complete with cookies and coffee. It provided an opportunity to put a one-on-one question or two to Bezek as he mingled with the crowd. (Of course there was to be no talking, with all cell phones turned off, during the performance as is usual practice in the theater.)

Rob Daniel, "Candidate stresses trust, transparency; Bezek the first superintendent hopeful to meet public," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 21, 2010. For perhaps the best take/commentary of the five on Bezek's evening, see Jeff Charis-Carlson's, "Faith, Trust and Transparency: Mark Bezek's Superintendent Interview," The Record/Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 21, 2010. (The Record is a free, membership site; the "five" are the two mentioned here and, linked from Charis-Carlson's piece, The Gazette and Daily Iowan stories -- plus (he modestly adds) this blog entry.) Nora Heaton, "School Board interviews first finalist for superintendent [in print edition as "Board Interviews Hopeful; Iowa City is a 'mirror image' of the first candidate's current district, he says"], Daily Iowan, April 21, 2010, p. A2; Gregg Hennigan, "Superintendent Candidate Familiar with Challenges Facing Iowa City School District," Gazetteonline, April 20, 2010.

On any given evening in Iowa City there is "the place to be." Last night it was the ICCSD Central Administrative Office, Board Meeting room (Harrison & Clinton Streets).

The show runs through Thursday night; same cookies, same format ("meet and greet" at 6:15, curtain at 7:00). The role of the superintendent will be played by Steve Murley this evening and Brad Meeks on Thursday.

Note: I'm teaching my seminar (Cyberspace Law) this evening during the hours of Murley's performance, so I'm relying on the notes and impressions of anyone reading this who attends this evening's session with Murley. Send them along.

Bezek's performance was especially impressive, given that he's been playing this show on the road, had to make an all-night drive from the Minneapolis area Monday night that meant he didn't get to bed until 3:00 a.m. yesterday. (He's been looking for a new position, and was one of six finalists for the position in St. Paul last November, but fell into the group of three unanimously eliminated from that group by the Board. For an index of stories about him during his position before Elk River, see the Fergus Falls Daily Journal.)

(For a delightful, well-written -- if slightly over-the-top -- curmudgeonly column that provides a sense of perspective about the utility of superintendent searches in general, but the St. Paul search in particular, see Joe Soucheray, "School super search costs a bundle and 'achieves' nothing," St. Paul Pioneer Press/, updated December 28, 2009.)

So what's the bottom line on Bezek, based on last evening? As it happened, my own take totally squared with that of someone who really does know educational administration inside and out (which I concede I don't). As she said when I asked her take on the evening, "He said all the right things; 100%. But you'll never know what you need to know until you've talked to a wide swath of the people in Elk River, to get a sense of the assessments of those both inside and outside that school system."

It echoed a sentiment and urging of mine in an earlier blog entry, "How to Pick a School Superintendent; And My Questions for Candidates," April 17, 2010 ("Hopefully, someone at one of the community's three local papers . . . will be assigned the task of some really in-depth investigation of the lives and careers of these three individuals. Hopefully, individual citizens will do the same. With access to a telephone, an Internet connection, some research skills, and a willingness to talk to strangers, the community can be provided a lot more background on these individuals than is likely to come from the Board or the 45-minute public meetings each will hold with local stakeholders. In my experience, search firms don't do that -- as was detailed in the blog entry, Nicholas Johnson, 'School Board Can't Do Job? There They Go Again,' January 7, 2010").

In that connection, it might be worth following up with the Bismarck, North Dakota, Public Schools board as well as those where Bezek has worked. He applied for the superintendent position in Bismarck, and here's what the Bismarck Tribune reported last Friday:
The favored candidate, . . . , withdrew his application after accepting a job in Washington state. . . .

[T]he board wants the search firm . . . to see if it can find an outstanding candidate or two to apply by April 22. . . .

The other finalists were Bismarck Assistant Superintendent . . .; Elk River, Minn., Superintendent Mark Bezek; Rugby Superintendent . . .; and Conroe, Texas, Associate Superintendent . . ..

Bezek and . . . ranked the highest after an informal ranking of the remaining four candidates. . . . Ultimately, though, the board felt none of the candidates had the combination of experience, vision and depth wanted for Bismarck’s next superintendent.

“What I’m hearing is discomfiture with the three who don’t fit right now,” said Board President Marcia Olson. . . .

Bezek looked like a “safe” choice because he has district administrative experience in a similar size school district. Board members said they were not impressed, however, with his vague or superficial answers. Also, his application had many details that were overlooked and a reference letter for a St. Paul, Minn., job.
Sara Kincaid, "Bismarck Superintendent Search Continues," Bismarck Tribune, April 16, 2010. (To be clear, I have no independent knowledge of these events, have spoken with no one in Bismarck, know nothing about the qualifications of the Bismarck school board members, and believe it would be both unfair and unwise for our local Board members to use this story in their comparative evaluations of the candidates without doing further investigation.)

The Board should be congratulated and thanked for setting up these sessions and conducting (at least this one) as they did. They were at their civil, quiz show best -- relaxed, casual, yet inquiring with thoughtful questions. There was a sense of good relationships between them, and between them and Bezek.

They may not have been digging with as sharp a shovel as a BBC interviewer -- but, then, neither is anyone in the national American media, so that's a little unrealistic a standard to which to hold a school board member.

The fact is they've opened up the process to any community member who cares to find out as much as one can from briefly meeting the candidates and listening to the Board's questioning of them.

When someone in my father's presence would use the line, "We've only just scratched the surface," he'd respond, "What else is there to scratch but the surface?"

That's kind of how I felt about Bezek's performance. It was reminiscent of the Broadway musical, "Hair," with which I had a loose association. Like a successful political campaign, "Hair" managed to generate public support by at least mentioning many of the ideas, words, and symbols of the generation to which it was designed to appeal -- without ever pursuing any of them in depth: long hair, drugs, nudity, rock music, anti-war, astrology, anti-materialism and personal freedom.

The subjects and slogans Bezek touched on were, of course, much more serious and substantive than those in "Hair." And there was little more that he or anyone else could possibly do with one-to-three-minute answers to serious questions. (Photo credit: Elk River, MN, School District)

Moreover, it really was an impressive tour-de-force romp through K-12's "best practices" and the business literature on management, leadership, administration, human and public relations. As my friend said, "100%."

In my conversations with him ahead of time I had the impression he had not seen the "My Questions for Candidates" list. Yet he managed to touch on a number of them.

Here's a sample:

He doesn't want to "just manage" our school district, he wants "to take it to the next level."

The public has to be involved in the decision making process because "They're your schools, we're just managing them."

He wants to "hire good people, set them up to succeed, and then support them;" it's a matter of "spotting and then developing talent." "The trick to success with any program is getting the right person." (The current phrase, which he did not use, is "getting the right people on the bus.")

"Faith, trust and transparency" and "good relationships" are central to successful administration. The superintendent needs to create and maintain good relationships with all employee groups; and s/he can't just invite their participation, you need to reach out, go to buildings, ask, do surveys, use focus groups. (He also avoided the phrase, "MBWA: management by walking around" -- but seemed to be a practitioner of that approach.)

"Problems are our friends," but then you need to be able to "spot the red flags" and "work collaboratively to find solutions."

He admires and says he follows former GE CEO Jack Welch's "4 E's wrapped in a P are the ingredients of success." See, e.g., Bryan Macktinger, "Jack Wows GSB; Ex-GE CEO Jack Welch Speaks on Campus," GSB News, Chicago Business, October 22/November 12, 2001 ("Energy (to succeed, you must have it), Energizing (instill it in others around you), Edge (the ability to say 'yes' or 'no' and to not say 'maybe'), and Execute (the key to success is not planning for it to happen, but in delivering it). The 'P' is for Passion, or 'caring more than the next person'").

He also quoted from Michael Fullan, The Six Secrets of Change: What the Best Leaders Do to Help Their Organizations Survive and Thrive, 2008.

You need to have agreement on what the roles of board members and the superintendent are; the relationship between board members and other administrators (the elements of what I refer to as a "governance model").

You have to have evaluations, measurement, built into every new project to see if you're hitting the target. "We don't just collect data, we use data" (what I refer to as a management information reporting system).

Planning and vision are key. Everything comes down to priorities and process. What are your priorities? What do you value? What is your long term vision, your five-year plan? You need to communicate it to the local community and get citizens' buy-in; the superintendent should be the district's cheerleader.

Have a process agreed on and in place ahead of time, before "hot spots" arise. He had experience laying out how boundaries would be changed ahead of time, with the community aware that would happen every two or three years (essentially an approach certainly consistent with what I've been advocating).

Look at a wider environment; know what's going on in other districts; there are few problems you'll confront that haven't been successfully dealt with by someone out there before you (a line I've often used, and something consistent with what the Board did at meetings when I served, a feature called "Ed News").

A late hour request for examples of what "moving our district to the 'next level' might mean," brought a quick offering of (presumably) extemporaneous ideas: a magnet school in the UIHC; a vocational, trades, magnet school [although he didn't mention it, the idea reminded me of a German approach I've written about in the past]; and more collaboration in general with Kirkwood Community College and the University of Iowa.

In short, much of the rhetoric mirrors my own and is something to which I respond positively: long term planning and vision; evaluation with metrics; governance principles that all have bought into; openness to change and the search for, and implementation of, "best practices" (rather than merely managing what you have). School districts are not Fortune 500 for-profit corporations with CEOs; but properly modified and adapted I see value (rather than horror) in borrowing from the best of the business literature and case studies that which can improve school district administration.

There's always the one major caveat with which I began: any evaluation of Bezek based on last evening (or the other two to follow) has to be reviewed and modified based on what a diverse group of folks from the communities where he's served before have to say about him. That's the only way one can tell for sure how much is hat and how much is cowboy.

But aside from that, and what some may find an over-use of buzz words, I came away favorably impressed.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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1 comment:

Nick said...

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