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.
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
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