Considering Commitment: Longevity, Excellency
and Resilience in Texas
By VANCE VAUGHN
Vance Vaughn is an Associate Professor at The University of Texas at Tyler, in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.
“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success”.
Landing a job as superintendent is difficult. The competition is prodigious because there are many very good people applying for this top executive position in school districts. Not only are the monetary rewards enticing, the intrinsic motivation birth from a desire to do so much for students, employees and a community as a whole ease the seemingly insurmountable hindrance of completing that application and submitting that resume. Once landing this superintendent’s position, the top executive becomes acquainted with the community, rubs elbows with the faculty and staff, enjoys the honeymoon with the school board, and settles in comparatively with a hot cocoa by a warm fire on a cold, snowy winter night. After a while, according to Sparks (2012), the community becomes dull as the sharp edges wear down, the cocoa gets a little cold, the honeymoon feeling slips away, and the top executive pulls out that resume once again in search of a new position.
It is not uncommon for superintendents to enter school districts and leave within as few as three to five years. This in-and-out experience seems to be the norm for Texas superintendents. On one hand, this revolving door makes the Texasisd.com website an interesting location to browse and pick up topics of conversation. On the other hand, if one wishes to converse about the superintendency in the Frost Independent School District (FISD), Jim Revill is the man to interview. I interviewed Jim.
According to Rosborg, McGee and Burgett (2003), “the greatest single ingredient to the success of an educational organization is still school leadership” p.3. Jim’s tenure is very much the lynch pin in what makes FISD so successful. Jim’s story reveals how the superintendent’s longevity in the district is so important to the success of the district in establishing and following rules and regulations, routines and guidelines, and processes and procedures. His longevity and leadership are the ingredients that mix well with FISD’s stability.
Superintendents face a tremendous amount of pressure, stress and uncertainty. In an era of rapid change, high stakes testing and accountability, superintendents must be extraordinary leaders, and preparation programs are working extra hard to equip their potential district leaders with the skills necessary to lead their districts toward success. However, without an ongoing and systemic way to remain abreast of the situations, practical day-to-day operations, and encounters superintendents are constantly dealing with on the job, this action case study reveals how one superintendent not only survived his first or second year of service as a superintendent, but how he was able to survive in the position for 22 years. Jim’s story helps us to see through the daunting challenges and complexities of the job. After reading Jim’s story, our future leaders may not feel overwhelmed as they take on this complex responsibility. The complex responsibilities and stressors of the job may contribute to a high turnover rate that can be destructive to an educational environment. Superintendent’s longevity has a positive effect on student achievement (Waters & Marzano, 2006); yet, superintendent turnover rate is not well studied. Sparks (2012) asserted, “stability at the central office has been linked to a greater likelihood of success for new education initiatives” (p. 2). Jim’s superintendency is by no means unique. But, his story is awesome. Ignoring his story hides the invaluable contributions his superintendency brings to the literature, and to the narrative addressing the longevity of superintendents in Texas.
When I first saw Jim, he was walking down the hallway from the cafeteria headed back to his office. As he walked pass the library entrance door the librarian greeted him when suddenly he was bombarded with what seemed like 10 students. The students knew Jim well. They appeared to like him a lot. As I later discovered, it would be very difficult for anyone to not like Jim. His personality is easy going yet firm, and confident. His sense of openness and intelligence directed me to reflect and ponder over whether these character traits should be prerequisites to obtaining positions as superintendents. After all, whether superintendents like it or not, they are considered civic leaders and politicians, and are subject to unwarranted criticism by many. The criticism escalates when community members learn that their taxes went up, or their child is being suspended from school or they disagree with a major decision that the superintendent supports. Superintendents will always be the target of some criticism in the community. The school superintendent’s character is always open to attack. Jim Revill has not only shown resilience under these attacks, but has positioned them in such a way that the attacks have only strengthened his desire to continue to lead in this district, and increased the community’s trust they have developed over 22 years.
Jim arrived in the FISD in 1991, accepting the highest position available in the district. After 22 years and counting, he still reigns. Mr. Revill was born and reared in Big Sandy, Texas. He was one of five children born to a father with an eighth grade education and a mother with a third grade education. Three of the five children finished college and the other two attended junior college. This college connection is worthy of mention because Jim’s parents’ desire for their children to value, respect and yearn for a college education is that same driving force Jim has and have had for his students over the years.
In The Trenches
It takes “guts” to remain in a superintendent’s position for a long time. It requires resilience, patience, trustworthiness, honesty and hard work. I asked Jim to give me a picture of the worst scenario that had happened to him while working as superintendent in FISD. Jim said, “without a doubt, the worst experience I have had was when I had the need to call for a Tax Ratification Election (TRE).” At the time of this TRE, the FISD enrollment had dropped considerably and without passing a TRE, the district was faced with implementing a Reduction in Force (RIF).
The TRE came at a time [September 2008] when the economy was down spiraling, and it was very early in the TRE process before many others [school districts] had called for one [The TRE had recently been implemented]. Both those factors made it somewhat difficult. In addition, some local people who had a great deal of "clout" came out against it, primarily because I probably did not do a good job of explaining it during the budget hearing. The number of people who showed up for the budget hearing was unexpected, and the Board and I were somewhat caught off guard by their presence. Also, many people did not understand that the "hold harmless" provision in Texas Public School Finance worked against us. As our local revenue increased, state revenue decreased. Without a TRE we could not increase funding without student growth. It really had little effect on the community other than people being unhappy. We had total support of the Board, and soon after the election everything returned to normal.
Jim stated, “the best thing that ever happened to me in the FISD is that the TRE passed.” If the TRE had not passed Jim might be working in another school district. But, quite honestly Jim appreciates the opportunity to work with a forward thinking Board. He has staffed his district with what he calls “top flight professionals.”
Jim gives advice to other potential superintendent candidates:
Be ready to work when the opportunity comes. Get trained, learn as much as you can about the superintendency, take advantage of training opportunities, talk school with your current supervisor and other superintendents to learn from their experience, and try to understand the current state of public schools.
According to Jim, there are benefits to becoming a superintendent. Being a superintendent allows Jim to impact many lives. He sees his vision in action, and because of his direction the district has been able to accomplish that vision. He has been in the FISD long enough to play a gigantic role in the “overall perception of the community” and he can see the changes and the differences his tenure has caused in helping to shape the lives of his ex-students. His stent has allowed him to work with and help educate several generations of families.
The benefits of remaining in a district for over 20 years include “the capital I have built up in gaining the trust of a lot of people. It allows me to witness first hand the effects of our local school system on an entire generation.” Students who are currently attending schools in FISD are children of students Jim graduated. Jim states “I am quite impressed with our current generation of students as compared to those when I first arrived.”
What Jim sees as the most obvious disadvantage of remaining in one district for over 22 years is that the income or salary of the superintendent is not maximized. Jim said, “I missed out by not “moving up” the ladder.” I asked Jim what he meant by “moving up” and he replied, “I did not search for opportunities in larger districts with larger pay, and that hurt my income because I am sure I could have made more money.” Jim continued, “I think it also allowed me to become a little "lazy" in keeping myself engaged in what was going on in other districts throughout the state.” “Finally, I think it probably has led to a little earlier burnout for me than I might have experienced if I had continued to be excited with new and fresh challenges.”
One of the main reasons superintendents have a brief stay in districts is due to poor superintendent and school board relationships. Jim agrees and offered the following advice to future superintendents:
I would advise them to always maintain a professional relationship with each board member. I would advise them to always be honest in answering questions when dealing with individual board members and the Board collectively. I would advise them to make sure the Board was informed about the "big" things, but avoid "gossiping" about the little things.
The superintendency is a complicated, professional and highly visible educational position, and some people get worn out. The stress is enormous on a day-to-day basis. According to the information from Texas isd.com, observers say that frequent turnover is inevitable. Superintendents must manage staff, work effectively with the school board, manage fiscal business and boost educational standards and accountability. Superintendents are contracted in hopes that they will be a district’s “savior”, but while national averages show it takes about five years for a successful new superintendent to turn around a troubled district, superintendents are only around for an average of 3 and one-half years.
A substantial measure of the success of any first year superintendent is the foundation he/she establishes for future years. Jim established that strong foundation in his first few years. In that respect, there are many areas in which superintendents can form this foundation. Mr. Revill learned early on, not only from what works, but also from what doesn’t work. Additionally, learning requires feedback. When Mr. Revill asked, “How am I doing?” He gains not only valuable insights into how he is performing as a leader, but how he affects the performance of others.
There is a reason Jim came to Frost. There is a reason he remained in Frost. From where Jim sits there is a reason for everything. Jim has been resilient. He planted his roots in the FISD over 22 years ago. Others may be moving on down the road in search of that next big opportunity. But for Jim, well, that opportunity has presented itself and Jim has accepted. His commitment is much better than his bark. And FISD can vouch for that!
Retrieved from the internet Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Rosborg, J,. McGee, M., & Burgett, J., (2003). What every superintendent and principal needs to know: School leadership for the real world. Education Communication Unlimited. Santa Maria, CA.
Sparks, Sarah D. 2012. Study dissects superintendent job turnovers. Education Week, 32 (13), 1-19.
Waters, Timothy, & Robert J. Marzano. 2006. School district leadership that works: The effect of the superintendent leadership on student achievement. Denver, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.
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