Who Will Replace Ford?

Brent Finnegan -- January 4th, 2010

Just as the Redskins look for a replacement for the recently fired Jim Zorn, the Harrisonburg School Board is searching for a replacement for the soon-to-retire Donald Ford (whether there’s a connection between the two depends on your opinion of the Redskins). Whoever the next superintendent happens to be will likely have to cope with an even tighter budget restrictions. Jenny Jones reports in today’s Daily News-Record:

School Board members will meet with representatives of the Virginia School Board Association on Jan. 11 at noon to receive guidance on conducting the search for Ford’s successor. The public meeting will be held at James Madison University’s Memorial Hall in the Dean’s Conference Room, No. 3165.

“I’ll be looking for someone who has some innovative ideas,” Coffman said. “I’m not looking for someone to come in here and reinvent the wheel … but we are reaching the point that we need someone with innovative ideas.” . . . “We’re looking to bring in someone that is the face of our education system,” he said. “We need someone that’s both a good manager of money and people.”

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26 Responses to “Who Will Replace Ford?”

  1. Dany Fleming says:

    This is certainly one of the most important city-wide decisions that will be made this year. This is a great opportunity for Hburgnews to be a constructive public forum for input and discussion. Hopefully, the discussion can be kept constructive – at least as much as it can be on a blog.

    Hburg is in a great position to get what Greg Coffman is suggesting, “someone with innovative ideas. ” Hburg is financially stable (relative to other districts) and educationally solid. There’s more room to grow here than in most places. It’s diverse, has an major education university neighbor and challenges that would interest most potential candidates. This is all a big plus in landing a recognized and proven leader in a national search.

    Though being a good money and people manager is important , those tasks can also be complimented through a watchful board and strong admin. staff. What the students, teachers, and, especially, principals need is someone who has absolutely proven they inspire their staff with new ideas and have earned their staff’s respect by supporting them in their own innovations.

    In essence – find a manager and number-cruncher and watch the energy drain from the staff. Find a principal and teacher leader and watch the staff become inspired. Given the number of folks from the Valley already in the system, I’d also suggest that getting new ideas from beyond our borders is crucial.

    …and what a novel idea it would be in Harrisonburg, a city that’s pretty diverse, to have a new face in a leadership position.

    So, what educational ideas to folks think are the priorities to be addressed by a new Super.?

  2. Lowell Fulk says:

    Vote Fleming for City School Board!

  3. Hopefully, the City will hire someone intellectually honest enough to admit that the Harrisonburg City Schools are GOVERNMENT schools.

    When the issue of their illegal weapons policy being in violation of the state’s preemption statute, Dr. Ford would never admit such a thing. When confronted with the wording on the license plate on his government-owned vehicle “for local government use”… he declined to comment.

    Now would be the perfect time for consolidation of City and County schools and slice off one of the two huge budgets of either Division’s “Central Office”.

  4. Jamie Smith says:

    Just a little story on how attention to detail is missing from the city school system at present. When the second snow fell during the recent break, the city re-plowed streets around an elementary school and in so doing re-covered a main sidewalk leading to the school. Prior to school reopening apparently no school official bothered to check the condition of the walks so yesterday, parents and children who normally walk on the sidewalk had to walk in the street or risk falling on the ice covering the walk. A little thing? Perhaps, but attention to detail is needed at every level. This same school still has numerous “trailers” on the property that have sat unused for two or more years. Beneath these units, numerous possum, groundhogs, etc. have established residence. At least two foxes have been sighted in this area. Not a good combination with school kids around. This has been called to the attention of the school administration but to date, nothing has been done to address the matter.
    Unimportant in the larger scheme of things perhaps, but both leave the school system open to unnecessary liability. The current administrative staff is large enough (perhaps not for long) to have someone assigned to look after matters like these.
    Perhaps because Ford came from the smallest school system in Virginia(Highland County) he has never gotten used to delegating. Hopefully the next person won’t have this shortcoming

  5. Brooke says:

    Yeah, the snow removal around the city schools seems to be a problem in general. My son doesn’t go to the school with all the trailers, but the sidewalk (downhill, no less) leading to his school is still mostly covered with ice. So you either have to try to go off the sidewalk in the areas of grass that are clear (albeit on the side of a hill sloping off the sidewalks), or walk in the street.

    Don’t even get me started on the condition of crosswalks and sidewalks in the residential areas and the non-enforcement of the snow removal statutes. The city makes you call the police, the police tell you to call the city. No one cares.

  6. Plowing is the purview of Public Works. The school system and Public Works are two completely different entities within the city. However, I’ve never seen a Public Works employee clearing sidewalks. Snow removal falls to the property owners. So, I would imagine clearing snow around a school would be the responsibility of the school.

  7. cook says:

    Two comments:

    1. Please don’t insult the Harrisonburg City Schools with such a comparison. No matter what you think of the school system, there can be no fair comparison. None.

    2. Virginia snow removal efforts are based on the premise that “it’s going to melt in just a day or two anyway.” We spent a portion of the holidays in western PA, where if there is any chance of snow, large trucks with salt and plows sit at the ready along the road at the summit of each hill, waiting throughout the night to attack before accumulation. Of course, in the mountains where accumulation in excess of a foot is common, such an approach is necessary. I am sure if VDOT employed such measures, we’d be hearing cries of “waste!” And perhaps it would be a waste to be so aggressive: it’s been since 2002, I think, since we’ve had a snowfall that crippled the area. Where do we want to put our $$?

  8. Dany Fleming says:

    Jamie, Brooke – check with your school PTA – get on their next meeting agenda. If it’s a concern to other parents as well, then you can make it a priority and push for some answers. I know that doesn’t always work, for various reasons. However, schools and principals really are looking to support parent issues and are not looking to be obstinate.

    As you say, “little” things do matter – especially to parents, who pay the bulk of the bill. In finding a new Super., the local media outlet and PTAs will provide valuable insight into whether parents feel the lines of communication are open with a potential Super. A warning flag is always someone who’s constantly on the defensive in their local media.

  9. seth says:

    off topic, but the hpd can’t very well go around writing tickets for failure to clear walkways when there are still at least 4 inches covering significant stretches of sidewalk around their parking lot.

    also off topic,
    my first day into work after the snow fell, i realized i was one of the only young backs, so i went and started shoveling. that kind of thing is probably below an educators pay grade though :)

  10. Dany Fleming says:

    So, apparently, the best job description that’ll be produced here is “Superintendent wanted; snow shovel required.” It just seems like a lot to pay for about 5 days of work each year. I’d hope we could fill the rest of the days with some school’s work.

  11. JGFitzgerald says:

    Dany: Be sure to add “Must have encyclopedic knowledge of state and federal laws, regulations, and habits concerning education, personnel, and budgeting; ability to remember the names of 850 employees, 4,500 students, and several thousand parents and guardians; knowledge of local history and tradition; ability to calculate school bus routes in his or her head, preferably while shoveling snow; incalculable patience.” Etc.

  12. Dany Fleming says:

    Joe, no doubt being a Super. requires being smart about an amazing array of things. The more you know the stuff you listed, the more info you have to draw upon.

    However, some of the best advice I ever got was “hire folks who are smarter than you and make you’re boss happy.” A Super. who’s not afraid to listen to and make use of smart people can get lots more done than an isolated decision-maker. We have some pretty smart principals, teachers and administrators already.

    Most importantly, we need someone who can prove they’ve tackled tough challenges at their previous jobs and did it by utilizing the talent they had and bringing in the expertise when they needed it. Principals rely on their teachers for some of the best solutions. The best supers. rely on their admins and principals for some of their best solutions.

    Of course, if we want someone that good, we have to be willing to pay. I think it’s worth the investment. Show me a successful school district and you’ve found a happy town.

  13. Jamie Smith says:

    Dany, right on the money. Knowledge, experience, decisive and know how to delegate. The latter will prevent snow plow duty and many of the other things mentioned in Joe’s job description
    This current school board seems to micromanage a bit but perhaps that’s how Ford likes it. I would like to see someone who comes to the board and says, “this is my strong recommendation” on as many issues as possible.

  14. You have to have a Super who will back the teachers when they are right, and hold them accountable when they are not.

    The ability to delegate properly would be a good quality for a Sup. to have, as well.

    Schools need to be run more like businesses (i.e. find ways to be more efficient and productive at a reasonable cost). As much as I’ll catch heat for this, I’m not sure life-long educators are the right people for the job.

    Mind you, my mother is a teacher, and she believes the same way (she’s the one who swayed me to such an opinion, actually).

  15. Dany Fleming says:

    Phil – I agree about both supporting and holding teachers accountable. Relying on and trusting staff is a pretty big must as well…..so, here’s another one of my long-winded responses.

    Running schools more like businesses has been a battle cry for quite a while; one result being our current standardized testing system. That aside, there are plenty of lessons for schools to learn from business, e.g., personnel practices like hiring, firing and recruiting practices, staff assessment, compensation systems.

    However, the idea that all schools are just inefficient and need to adopt more business practices is a myth – often promoted by over-confident business folks. Of course, by business I assume you’re not referring to places like Enron, WorldCom, GM, AIG, most big banks, etc……but to the solid, well-run businesses like……well, like all the ones we really admire.

    Managing in the public domain is vastly different from the private sector. While school’s administration training has a long way to go, adopting a strictly business model won’t work. At the end of the day, businesses eventually look to “cut their losses.” That isn’t acceptable in our public schools, and shouldn’t be. Otherwise, our school system will end up like our current health system – kicks you out if you’re sick and good luck getting back in.

    I think I do understand where you’re coming from. However, I also don’t want my kids to be thought of as just “assets” or widgets on the production line. Schools have lots to work on and business has lessons to offer – but it’s not a one way lesson.

    Business jumped at the chance to start charter schools and show how their management practices could work. However, it’s been the educator-led charter schools which have far out-performed the business-led models. It turns out that building a consistent, best-education practices approach is much more effective than the notion that better management practices will just yield better schools and students. Which is not to say that poorly managed educator-led schools aren’t likely to fail, as well.

    In Harrisonburg, we don’t suffer from vast management inefficiencies. I know that’ll be met with some skepticism here. However, we compare well to many districts….and we compare well to the lots of failing businesses everywhere.

    A business idea that is valuable in a Super., though, is the idea of finding and implementing innovate ideas. Trusting and rewarding your staff for those ideas and being able to reach out for input. For example, it seems that our schools should be jumping at the chances to partner with JMU (a leading education and business school).

    I think you’re much more likely to find an educator with those qualities than a successful business person with the skills to run a public school system…..but, I guess you never know.

  16. hhsparent says:

    Dany, I am curious to hear more at how you believe HCPS and JMU could partner together. What programs do you think should be further developed and how can the two institutions work together? Where do you think the obstacles are? Has JMU offered opportunities that were rebuffed by HCPS?

  17. Dany fleming says:

    There’s certainly some collaboration going on. That it’s not much more seems pretty revealing. Other sdistricts drool over the prospect of a top education and business university as a neighbor and partner. …and then there’s all the other good JMU departments like communications, arts, history, etc.

    The opportunities are there and JMU is a willing partner. Its part of JMU’s civic mission and they’re getting better and better at securing grants. HCPS needs to be more proactive in pursuing them and creative in listening to the offers. The large amount of community work done through JMU’s IIHHS is a good example of what’s possible.

    In fairness to HCPS, just because something is offered (even if it’s at no cost) doesn’t mean it’s worth moving on. No doubt, there’s plenty of examples of school staff time and energy being wasted trying to fit unneeded programs just for the sake of doing them. Finding extra time in the school day (is that an oxymoron?) is often a challenge. But, that’s part of why you have a non-classroom admin. staff. Being smart apart partnering is critical…..and often takes learned experiences. But, you have to start to learn.

    What could be developed? HHS students could take JMU-sponsored courses, earning both HS credits and transferable college credits; jump starting college at a fraction of the cost. Other Valley districts are already taking advantage of this.

    HCPS could make some technology-use headway with multiple JMU deparments (ed. tech and media, communications, ISAT, etc.). HCPS could beef-up its marginal arts program with JMU. JMU’s business school could use it’s knowledge and national recruiting experience to help with the new Super. hiring process…….etc.

    Some of this has already been offered – some needs to be developed. Of course, HCPS could get lots of valuable insights about itself as a research laboratory with JMU’s Ed School.

    This type of work is much more fully developed in many college towns. I really don’t know why HCPS has not exploited this opportunity more. I’d just be guessing and speculating without more insight isn’t always helpful.

    In any case, for HCPS, moving forward and benefiting is absolutely possible. Finding a Super. with this type of successful and direct experience might be be a good hiring criteria.

  18. Deb SF says:

    There’s a lot going on already, just below the radar. From my perspective, the Harrisonburg school system has been one of most innovative in the state with respect to preparing students for the next step, whether it be college or workforce readiness. The pilot program partnering HHS and BRCC is aimed at aligning math and english curriculum of both institutions to minimize the need for remedial/developmental classes as students move from HS to college is being watched closely not only around the state but around the country. The coordination between the CC and HS faculty has been pretty astounding, and was touted in last Monday’s College and Career Readiness Summit at the Library of Virginia, attended by Gov. Kaine and Gov. elect McDonnell. The pilot program is going to be extended to some HS’s in the county.

  19. Dany fleming says:

    That’s a great example of a valuable partnership, Deb, and those folks deserve kudos. I do agree there’s some stuff going on and that program should continue to develop. It also seems the HS is significantly ahead of K-4 here.

    There’s also more than ample room to grow. BRCC’s a solid CC, providing a good service. I imagine many parents/students would also like the chance to earn JMU credits and university-staff exposure. In the end, those credits are more transferable than comm. college credits. Clarke County (VA’s top school district) comes all the way down here to partner with JMU. Why align curriculum with a CC when you could do it with a tier 2 university?

    …one other partnership opportunity, HHSparent. HCPS is in desperate and critical need of diversifying it’s staff (as is H’burg gov’t, for that matter). Though it might seem like an ironic position for JMU, they could offer invaluable support and creativity to meet that end…much like UVa has helped Charlottesville.

  20. I don’t see where diversification is a “desperate” or “critical” need.

    Educating students with the best teachers and adminstrative staff possible is a critical need of any school. Just because a staff is diverse, does not mean they are providing the best education possible…and you’re talking to the son of a Latin immigrant (maybe it is because of my own diverse background, I don’t understand this overt fascination with “diversity” over “quality” from some educators, but that is just me).

    We need both teachers who can teach and administrators who can administrate at the highest levels of excellence. Wouldn’t all of you agree?

  21. hhsparent says:

    Well, Dany, those are good points. In an ideal world all of those things would happen. I know from personal experience that many of your suggestions have been made and discussed. If the only requirements were willingness on the part of HCPS to have them happen, then I have no doubt that many of them would be implemented.

    Harrisonburg is a changing demographic. But I would wager that we do not have the income of Evanston; I would suspect that Clarke County is more affluent and more sophisticated in their educational approach (don’t they have an IB program?), and don’t forget the obligation to meet federal and state mandates (including meeting the needs of English learners, of which we have a great many).

    When my child was at the high school, we worked very hard to try and make college classes work at JMU. The biggest obstacles were those presented by JMU as well as the astronomical costs relative to BRCC. The BRCC/HHS partnership has proven to be a viable, sustainable, cost-effective option.

    “We need both teachers who can teach and administrators who can administrate at the highest levels of excellence. Wouldn’t all of you agree?” — I know I would.

  22. Deb SF says:

    “BRCC’s a solid CC, providing a good service.” Well, thanks so much. Do you mean for this to be a dismissive as it sounds?

    Dany: my comment addressed the alignment of curriculum between BRCC and HHS and the ways it is designed to decrease the need for remedial/developmental college coursework for students who get the standard HS diploma (as opposed to the advanced). JMU coursework (at JMU prices) is not the place to teach fractions, basic algebra, percentages, spelling, grammar etc. The community college system is; it’s one part of our mission. We teach people Hamlet and calculus, Spanish and psychology, Keynes and physics and the rest of gen ed, as well as how to fix a plane, drive a truck, repair a computer, anesthetize a cat, and change a spark-plug. When you graduate from JMU with a degree, nobody asks where you got your gened credits.

    And transferability? Really? Dany, CC credits cost a fraction of those at JMU and are transferable to virtually every four-year college in the state. BRCC serves more than 4,000 students – second in size only to JMU in the Valley. Nearly 50% of BRCC grads transfer to 4 year colleges, the rest go into the workforce or transfer to a 4-year without graduating with an associates degree of some sort.

    The VCCS currently serves more than 262,000 students across the state. BRCC is getting many formerly-known-as-JMU students now, because they can afford us in this crappy economy and we have a guaranteed admissions agreement with JMU; we’ve seen an 18% increase in FTE’s over the lat 2 years. They finish gen-ed with us in smaller classes, and transfer to a 4 year college as a junior directly into their major. And we turn on a dime- want to start classes at BRCC this semester (which starts tomorrow)? It’s completely doable. I’ve never worked for an organization as flat and flexible as this one, as tuned into the specific educational needs of the community it serves. I love JMU, EMU and MB (and have taught at all three) but there’s absolutely no place around here like BRCC.

    Despite the fact that about 60% of our students are part time, when they transfer to JMU, they complete at rate of about 85%, as compared to native JMU students who (if they get to their junior year) finish at a rate of about 90%. More than 20 VA 4-yr colleges have signed system-wide guaranteed transfer agreements with the VCCS, including UVA, Tech, VCU and W&M. JMU has not, only signing an agreement with BRCC. That’s why I have so many NOVA kids in some of my classes, coming down 81 twice a week- they want the BRCC associates degree to get into JMU.

    We also have a thriving dual enrollment program, enrolling HS students in college-level courses that are transferable directly to the 4-year institutions. I have a couple of Ft. Defiance students in my Econ 202 micro class which starts tomorrow (after they finish their HS exams this week). My son took advantage of this; after finishing the math HHS had to offer, he picked up higher-level math courses at BRCC that directly transferred to UVA. He graduates this May with degrees in Math and Econ, after entering UVA with more than 30 credits from AP and BRCC courses. The connections are there and tons of people are taking advantage of them.

  23. Dany fleming says:

    Obviously, I’ve touched some nerves. I don’t really disagree with either of you, HHS and Deb. I honestly thought I was complimenting and advocating for the BRCC program. So, I ‘m not clear what sounds dismissive; it wasn’t my intention.

    Anyone who’s read my long-winded education spouts here should say I’m a consistent defender for the city schools. I constantly take up the charge for our undervalued/underpaid teachers and administrators. I’ve said it’s their effective and efficient work, top to bottom, which puts H’burg in a strong position to lure top Super. candidates. I agree with Dr. Ford, the schools are already doing “more with less.” (I believe our city gov’t gives a big bang for the buck, too).

    Deb, I also appreciate your description of the CC’s. I’ve never questioned their value nor BRCC’s leadership in VCCS.

    As far as school partnerships. as I said, I’m not speculating on where any obstacles originate. I don’t doubt that both sides of the ledger probably have concerns to address. HHS, Deb, you seem clear on your ideas on the obstacles. In any case, the schools still have a need for support and resources; the university has a mission to try to help. With public dollars and our kids in the mix, HCPS certainly has more at risk in taking on partnerships. There’s also relatively more for HCPS to gain. Fortunate or not, that probably makes the incentive and need to make things work higher on the HCPS side.

    So, my initial suggestion was only that we recruit for Supers. with successful university/cc partnership experience. That type of leadership might help move things forward from where ever there are now.

    …as far as diversifying the staff. It is certainly an issue of perspective. I have no doubt that the idea and value of diversity will find some resistance here. If it’s not your perspective, it’s often dismissed as not valid at all. That diversity equates to or results in lower quality, as suggested earlier, is an old, failed argument…and part of the problem. It’s interesting how quickly my suggestion for diversifying was turned into my abandonment of higher quality. Unfortunately, that’s the challenge many minority kids still run up against.

    I do understand that school and city staff often take the brunt of unfounded criticism. I pretty regularly stand in their defense. In H’burg, we have a great bargain – low-taxes with good services and staff. The challenge, as an anxious parent, is how to give constructive criticism that leads to useful dialogue.

    No doubt, a new school Super. needs thick skin and a big ear.

  24. Josh says:

    Deb: JMU has guaranteed admissions agreements with other community colleges besides BRCC–


  25. Deb SF says:

    Josh; JMU is one of the few large state supported 4-year schools that has not signed a system-wide agreement with the VCCS. If memory serves, the only other large 4-year college in the state without a system-wide agreement is VMI, which makes sense for a whole other set of different reasons.


  26. Rham_blosser says:

    I love watching bureaucrats get all defensive and fingerointing with their pet programs. Dont you see why we cna’t underpay them enough Danny? They take your money, their entitlements, their cubicles, prop-up their kingdoms and hate a little competition. You liberals keep fueding over your entitlements.

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