A Pair of Model Leaders to Emulate

Two of the superintendents who best exemplify the ideals we express in The Governance Core are Marc Johnson and Laura Schwalm, now both retired. We profile their actions here about their relations with their respective school boards.

Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson

He served as superintendent of the Sanger Unified School District in Sanger, Calif., from 2003 to 2013 and was honored as National Superintendent of the Year in 2011.

In 2003, the teachers’ union in Sanger sponsored a roadside billboard ad that blared “Welcome to the home of 400 unhappy teachers.” A district with 11,000 students and 12 schools, Sanger was listed by the state the following year as the 98th lowest-performing district among more than 1,000 statewide. When Johnson retired in 2013 after 11 years as superintendent, the district had advanced to one of the highest-performing in California.

Johnson made a personal commitment to keep children in the forefront of every decision and deliberation — a theme he constantly reinforced with his board of education.

Johnson established a practice to ensure that, prior to any action, the board was fully engaged and informed. He always made sure the board knew the why behind an initiative before they were asked for approval. In the case of any doubts being raised, Johnson always hit the pause button and re-worked the plan.

He made it a point to engage the board in the work of the district. Throughout the school year, the district held structured school visits for the trustees. They were designed as a learning tool to show the board how the programs they approved with financial backing were being used to benefit students in the schools.

Johnson built in sit-down dinner meetings before every board meeting involving senior staff, and he organized interaction on key issues. Staff members and trustees were paired around specific issues at each meeting as a way to build relationships.

Most significantly, Johnson believed a superintendent always should be honest and upfront with members of the board. Some superintendents, in his view, would present only half the story and give the board a false perception of reality. “You must confront the ugly,” he said.

Building relationships with the board was right up there with keeping children as the highest priority.

 Laura Schwalm

Laura Schwalm

The superintendent of the Garden Grove Unified School District in Anaheim, Calif., for 14 years before retiring in 2013, Schwalm managed a diverse school system with 48,000 students.

During her tenure, which ended in retirement in 2013, Schwalm’s district was selected in 2004 as the winner of the Broad Prize for Urban Education and was one of five finalists in both 2002 and 2003 for the coveted award honoring the most outstanding urban school system in America. The district was one of the state’s lower performing in the 1990s.

Schwalm makes it clear that a major factor in her success could be attributed to a purposeful, highly proactive relationship with the school board. She worked closely with board members, making sure they owned the instructional program. She always tried to give the board credit for the major accomplishments of the district and ensured they knew she was supporting them, or as she told us, “watching their back.”

While making sure each trustee was fully informed on district programs, Schwalm shared information in a way that would help them communicate with the community. She was conscious of their perspectives and of the pressures they felt as elected officials. She was always conscious of her internal moral compass.

Similar to Johnson, she saw herself working for the children as well as for the board, thus bringing the two agendas together.

Michael Fullan and Davis Campbell