A Utah State School Superintendent Survival Guide

Utah State School Superintendent Survival Guide
To the final four applicants, if you take this job, at times you’ll feel like Bear Grylls, dropped into a vast wasteland with only a pocket knife and a roll of duct tape at your disposal.

Congratulations! You made it to the interview portion of the Utah State Superintendent selection process!  Utah’s families care deeply about their kids and their schools.  They highly value education.

But that’s about where the good news ends.

The Utah State School Board and the Utah State Office are a mess.  There are a few great things happening, but as a whole there is dysfunction, distrust, and general disorder.    If you take this job, at times you’ll feel like Bear Grylls, dropped into a vast wasteland with only a pocket knife and a roll of duct tape at your disposal – and of course a camera crew scrutinizing your every move.  To help you along, here are a few tips for your survival:

The Vision Thing

You will work for the twenty-one member Utah State Board of Education, fifteen of whom vote. The Utah State Board is not really an executive board; it is more like a gridlocked legislative body. Your job is to shape and create a unified ‘board intent’, and it will be like herding cats.  Don’t count on too much help from the Attorney General’s Office, either.  For what it is worth, it has been ruled by a federal judge that your board members are elected by a process that is unconstitutional.  This means the  make up of the board may shift as the process changes, but it will take a few years.

The Do Less Reality

Utah State Board of Education meetings resemble Chinese water torture.  They last until late on Thursday nights and then starting up again for 11-12 hours on Fridays, as everybody meanders through 975 (give or take a few hundred) pages of meeting materials. You should pick 2-3 big initiatives and keep everyone focused on those. That’s what leaders do. Everyone should know at all times what those 2-3 big goals are.

Control the USOE

You are now in charge of the Utah State Office of Education, and due to an exodus of senior administrators, you can largely build your own team. Don’t let the Utah State Board or Utah Legislature micromanage your agency. Entrenched interests abound; insist on your own authority.

Play Offense, Not Defense

For years, the annual Utah Legislative Session has been a 45-day event determining how much of the public education status quo would be eroded. Traditional schools and charter schools waste what little resources and influence they have in pointless wars with each other. Those with the best interest of public education at heart go to the Hill and play defense to someone else’s agenda. You need to change all of that. Treat every session as an opportunity. Most legislators are good people who want good policy to help kids. They will work with you if they can, but you need to take the lead. Go sit down with legislators, hear their thoughts and experiences, and build common ground.  Be creative and play offense.

Use the Power of Public Opinion

Find that powerful people have their hands in the cookie jar? Call the Trib. Frustrated the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission (UPPAC) is being soft on teacher misconduct? Call them on it. Think property tax policies could raise more money for schools with some reasonable and fair tweaks? Get the public on your side. These are battles that could be won.

And Good Luck!

You are now responsible for half of the state’s budget.  Your conduct will be constantly scrutinized, and as your predecessors learned, this job can wear you down quickly.  But you can do this, and we NEED you to do this.  Utah’s underfunded schools and the students who have been forgotten amidst the power struggles are ready for some help.

Remember at the end of every episode Bear is battered and bruised, but still standing.  Hang in there.

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