Profile: Stewart I. McDonald
A Winning Formula on Remote Turf
BY LIZ GRIFFIN/School Administrator, September 2017
BUILDING TRUST WAS Stewart McDonald’s first order as superintendent of the 2,400-student Kodiak Island Borough School District, a remote system in the Gulf of Alaska. The 24/7 task was one at which McDonald excelled. His passionate and forthright communication style and guiding philosophy — kids always come first — signal his priorities and commitment.
During his opening year as superintendent in 2009, McDonald faced a major budget crunch and a pressing need to rally community support for an $80 million high school/career technical center. He was met with criticism, even hostility. Potential spending overruns alarmed residents, though McDonald promised to contain costs and subsequently delivered the facility under budget.
McDonald consulted with businesses and industry, whose leaders bought into his vision for “strengthening the village” by teaching real-world skills to young adolescents. Vocational programs included culinary arts, welding, electronics and electrical and plumbing trades.
When praised for his achievement, McDonald demurred. “I cannot say I accomplished any more than what we did as a team,” he says. But Norm Wooten, former board president, notes McDonald’s humble response typified him. He credits the superintendent’s leadership and hard work as the principal reasons for passage of the construction bond.
McDonald’s collaborative problem solving moves the schools beyond gridlocked conversations. He prefers to focus on what can be accomplished rather than on the barriers.
“I believe leaders’ key role is to bring disequilibrium to a system,” says McDonald, who was one of four finalists for the 2017 National Superintendent of the Year award.
He accomplishes this during meetings by at times asserting “It’s got to be done like this!” This is a tactic that elicits a response and allows him to modulate his tone to one that is serious but good-humored. “Well, give me an alternative and I might listen!” he’s inclined to offer.
The small island of Kodiak (pop. 13,500), is 250 miles west of Anchorage and reachable only by ferry or small plane. Native Alaskans, called Alutiiq (“people of the sea”), are the dominant culture in its tiny, remote villages, although the city of Kodiak’s population is diverse.
When McDonald was promoted from assistant superintendent to superintendent, the school board made a lengthy list of priorities that included boosting the graduation rate, building up curriculum, closing achievement gaps, modernizing schools and designing an effective suicide prevention program. (Alaska typically has the highest suicide rate in the nation.)
“The work’s often been messy and time-consuming,” says McDonald.
He rallied community support among a diverse group of constituents including small business owners, scientists and engineers — plus a small but influential cadre of village leaders.
“Stewart brought the technology to the district that provided equity to our school system,” Wooten says. “You couldn’t take AP classes in the villages. Then he implemented video so every high school class was also offered to the villages.”
Melissa Borton, a former board president, says McDonald “took us where we needed to go, which wasn’t necessarily where the community was ready to go.”
He’ll have a chance to apply his successful strategies in his new superintendency in the 2,000-student North Slope Borough School District. That job began July 1.
BIO STATS: STEWART MCDONALD
superintendent, North Slope Borough School District, Barrow, Alaska
superintendent, Kodiak Island Borough School District, Kodiak, Alaska
Greatest influence on career:
Norm Wooten, my school board president, has been a mentor through the toughest times. He taught me how to take the right risks.
Best professional day:
Alaska has the highest suicide rate in the nation. We have worked to be proactive.
Books at bedside: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain
by Zaretta Hammond; and A Beautiful Constraint
by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden
When I sought to be understood before I sought to understand. Telling public or elected officials they are wrong is not a good way to begin a conversation.
Why I’m an AASA member:
Access to a national professional network and state affiliates and AASA resources tailored to superintendents.