An Interview With School Board President Jeffrey Isaacs
Discussing the events of the past year and the role a new leader will play in Shaker's future
May 2, 2019
What were your thoughts, initially, about the community meeting?
Well, I think I was taken aback, as everyone was, trying to understand what we’d just seen. It was clear that there was a need for greater listening and the core issues ‒ the underlying issues, whatever they were ‒ the general sense was that folks were not, kind of, connecting, hearing each other. And that couldn’t have been any more stark.
What did you talk with the board about immediately afterward?
We talked about how to respond. What could we do to address what had just happened? We talked, frankly, about what had just happened.
And what did you come up with ‒ how to respond?
We felt that we needed to go point by point and understand what the short-term and long-term responses were to each of those things. Some of them, we put into a letter that we signed, you know, a couple of days after the meeting. Some of them are longer-term things ‒ we’re dealing with searching for new leadership in our district. And, as you know, we’re on the verge of hiring a new superintendent, and we’re searching for a principal for this building. I think that we felt that a lot of the issues we’re seeing could really be addressed by getting folks in who are going to take things in a positive direction. That was the long-term solution, for us.
What did you decide you were looking for in a leader?
Our immediate responsibility is to choose the superintendent… all other attributes aside, you know, someone who is an excellent instructional leader, someone who’s capable of managing a team, who understands budgets and finance, we really focused in on the need for someone who also could invest in relationships, could build a team that could work forward and would, sort of, listen across not only area boundaries, but also building boundaries. We’re, in some ways, a small town, and we need to keep that in mind ‒ that what happens in any corner affects every other corner. So, someone with that sensitivity… We wanted a caring leader, someone who would be intentional and thoughtful about what they were doing. I mean, all of those things kind of add up to having a real good dose of emotional intelligence. So, that then factored into all of the other attributes that you’re looking for when you’re searching for a superintendent.
Are you happy with the leadership profile of Ray and Associates?
Those are kind of the human attributes. These are the skill-sets.
What did you and/or other board members discuss with Dr. Wilkins immediately after the community meeting?
We essentially had a debrief about what had happened and what we would need to do, following that. To address, what had been, obviously, in the audience and on the stage. There needed to be a response in the high school. Dr. Glasner was here, so we heard from him a little bit about what he intended to do to make sure that he connected with all the students involved, that the teachers and other folks that were clearly upset at the end of the evening ‒ you need to build trust, and then you’re able to understand where things need to be addressed. So, I mean, we talked about what specifically should happen in this building, we talked about whether or not it was wise to even try to address the community or whether we needed a couple days to do that, we talked about what impact it might have on our short-term and medium-term operations. The stuff that happened was focused on the high school, and the conversations really all led there ‒ so, what does that building need? We heard early on that there might be a student group coming together to facilitate a conversation, and we were very glad to hear that. Board members attended that. I think it’s sort of ‒ how do you set a framework for a conversation after people have gotten very upset about something, so those were kind of the boundaries around which we were thinking ‒ how do you move forward? How do you begin to have a conversation, so that you understand what actions need to be taken?
Not everyone there, who was upset, was upset for the same reason.
How has Dr. Hutchings’ tenure informed or shaped the criteria for the next superintendent?
One bit of advice that I was given when we first started thinking about who our next leader would be is: Try not to choose someone either in opposition of or in complete emulation of the leader before. Try to think through the problem without either looking for the same person or looking for the opposite of that person. And we’ve tried hard to do that. Dr. Hutchings has a larger-than-life personality, and he inspired lots of reactions among different people, so we tried to focus on the core of what the work was, and to look for someone who would continue the work. As you know, we’re at the end of a five-year strategic plan, and so the question is ‒ what are those next steps? How much of that have we actually finished, and how much remains to be done?
Are you planning on hiring another firm to create a new strategic plan?
We’ll definitely create a new strategic plan. What that process looks like, I don’t know. We’ve, you know, to a certain extent gotten better ourselves at understanding what processes we’d like to conduct, and we have some talent built up. We were at a point where it seemed to make sense, strategically, to take a pause and to come back to it with a new superintendent in place.
How did the events of the last school year influenced the board’s criteria for the next superintendent, if at all?
We have a young board ‒ three board members who are just starting their second year of service. And, in a way, it threw us together and forced us to develop a chemistry that you don’t normally get on a board that quickly. So, I actually think it, unexpectedly, helped us work through what can be a very challenging process ‒ to decide what you’re looking for in a superintendent. What’s the firm that you’re going to use to help you search? What should the process be? All of those can be very contentious. Nobody runs for the board unless they really care about what happens with the schools, so everyone comes to the table with a lot of passion. Those were a difficult several months. It wasn’t only what happened in this building ‒ let me remind you of the unfortunate loss of the Woodbury teacher Aisha Fraser. That whole range of different sorts of events that happened and that we responded probably brought us together in a way that’s made the process go more smoothly. I’m not sure that it radically changed who we were looking for, but it made it seem that much more important and immediate to us. Everyone’s very invested in this process.
We’ve already been looking for whether they’re a good listener, whether they understand the question and can respond directly to it. We’ve had an opportunity to check with colleagues and other folks ‒ checking references and off-references, you know, people that aren’t expecting that phone call. We’ve had it in mind that we need someone who’s a nimble thinker, but also deliberative ‒ careful and thoughtful. In the way we set up the questioning, we were very intentional, ourselves, about ‒ let’s push someone along these lines.
What sort of questions do you ask to find someone with emotional intelligence?
When you push someone further on something, are they responding to it? Are they picking up the tone of the question? Are they understanding the dynamics of the room? I think it’s all the skills that make someone a good interviewer. You really have to listen and understand where they’re going, or why they’re moving in a certain direction.
Will anything in the superintendent contract change?
We won’t use the exact same contract that we used previously.
Will there be any incentives for budget cuts?
It’s a board decision ‒ it hasn’t been decided yet ‒ but I think that there was certainly some resistance to having those sorts of things built into a previous contract, and we’ll take that into consideration. It was, really, an incentive to find operational savings, and not broad budget cuts. Dr. Hutchings was not going to get paid for firing teachers. That was not part of the contract or an arrangement or an expectation.
On the RIF, all of those were accomplished through attrition.
Is the board hoping to continue reduction through attrition next year?
We have fewer students than we did. And yet, we haven’t adjusted our teaching staff and our support staff accordingly. So, where it’s appropriate, that would be the intention, yes.
What will the board ask the next superintendent to focus on?
Certainly finances and budget, and the future of our physical plant. We need to be sustainable into the future, so we’re going to ask the person to examine that. But, I think the primary thing is building a new strategic plan that incorporates the work that has not yet been accomplished, or that is in process still. We certainly are interested in taking on ‒ the equity task force has been at work, and we have a new equity policy, so we’ll need to respond to that. We want someone who can work with our community and help us to all get there together. We’re a fascinating district for a new superintendent candidate in that most districts are not balanced in the way that we are, in terms of the composition of our student body and our community. Wealth and income, race and other ethnic backgrounds. So, all of those contending forces create a need for someone to be solving a bunch of issues at once. So, when you talk about something like, “What are the goals?” ‒ they’re so varied. And they really are pretty well laid out in the work that we’ve been doing.
This is your second superintendent search?
This is my first.
What did you ask Dr. Glasner to focus on for the remainder of the school year, and what do you want the next principal to focus on?
Dr. Glasner is an experienced principal and administrator, so he had a strong sense of what would be a way to move forward here. It involved a lot of coming in, listening to people, understanding what it was that needed to move along, if anything needed attention. So, it was really based on his judgement. We asked him to please help settle this building down, understand where the tensions were, and to use his talents to keep the school year running. One of the things that struck me ‒ I have a son in this building ‒ is that students came back to school and continued with their classes. Teachers taught, meetings continued to happen, sports teams met. A lot of the normal functioning of a school just continued on.
What did Glasner tell you?
He had a series of ideas for setting up regular meetings… he certainly facilitated bringing folks together to make the business of the high school move forward. And went out of his way to be present at events and activities that ‒ you’d want a presence there from the building administrator.
Arbitration won’t conclude until mid-April, estimated. How does the board plan to facilitate a rebuilding of trust between teachers and administration, especially with brand new administration?
I think it’s on our whole community to help with that. We’ll have a new person sitting in the corner office in the administration building, and we’ll do our part to facilitate meetings and do our part where we can, to help out, but it’s really going to come down to all of us inviting that new person in, and giving them a chance, and getting to know them. The person will come in with a hundred day plan that will include circulating, getting to know people. In the superintendent selection process, we included some teachers in December when we did this public engagement piece. We went out of our way to make sure that everyone was invited to come and share with us what they thought we need from the next leader. And we’ve listened to those voices. Now that we’re down to the final selection, we still have people in the room ‒ particularly teachers, but all of our union leaders will have a chance to meet with the superintendent finalists next week. We recognize the significance of it. Again, we’re a small enough community that you can say to folks, “Have you been here and met these people yet, and what are the plans for continuing the conversation, because you need to be in touch with them.” We’ve had plenty of conversations with the teachers’ association, informally, when possible, to understand what their concerns are, and try to accommodate those as best we can.
How have those conversations with the SHTA gone?
They’re always cordial and interesting ‒ informative. You’d have to ask the people we’ve talked to, if they see it the same way. I think they would.
What have you learned from those conversations?
A lot of it, I already had an inkling was true. So, it’s more about reorganizing the sense of what is important in those conversations, and the sense of urgency to deal with things. They revolve around making sure everyone understands procedures, processes on both sides. You heard all the same things I did ‒ people want clarity on certain things. Some have been addressed, some will be addressed in summer learning opportunities. Some will be addressed because we have a new person in the superintendent’s chair, who’s able to bring focus to those things.
Has or will the district create a standard for placing a staff member on leave?
Those are, again, operational decision-making trees. And while we’re all very interested in what those are, ultimately it rests in the hands of the principal, assistant principal, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, and the superintendent. So, we want to know that those things have been cleared up on both sides. That’s kind of the board’s interest: let us know that you’ve worked through this and that everyone understands what the process is. Some of them are suitable for putting it down on a piece of paper; others are definitions that the circumstances are so incredibly wide and varied that you couldn’t possibly begin to write down every single instance.
It’s very situational. We’ve asked a ton of questions about how this works, how this might work, and ultimately, it’s extremely dependent on what actually happened in a particular circumstance.
If there is no standard, how will teachers know their limits, and be able to teach freely?
I think, honestly, that our teachers already do an excellent job of knowing where those limits are. I think it’s when something happens that’s unexpected that people begin to get nervous. If, from your perspective, you don’t agree with the judgement, then it calls your attention to it. So, at those margins, we probably need to continue to have those conversations. I think everyone would agree that this happens very, very rarely. So, do we want to make sure that there isn’t an enormous misunderstanding or disagreement over something like this? Absolutely. How do you get there? It’s probably not by writing down every single possible iteration of it. It’s probably more dependent on the issues we talked about earlier of trust and understanding that each side is coming to the table and bringing the value of fairness and openness about it. So, that’s what we’re working toward.
Why or how does the board use search firms to find administrators?
You want to have a process that has a lot of fidelity, so you’re going to a firm that does nothing but this. They set up the process, they know where they need to be careful, they know where they need to bring folks in. So, we do this rarely enough that we want to make sure we get it right. We don’t have anyone that does this every day. There’s that aspect ‒ you want to get it right. The other thing is, you want to tap into networks that bring in people outside of just your networks, and that’s part of what these search firms are bringing to the table. And then, finally, you’ve got to do all of the other things that are involved ‒ vet a large pool of people to make sure you don’t have folks that are inappropriate for the position that you’re looking for. Their qualifications match, their backgrounds are ‒ I mean, you’re doing things that you don’t normally do in the daily business of the district, and so you’ve got to hire some outside talent to bolster your ability to do some of these things. As a board member, I’ve spent a lot of time invested in ‒ what are the details of this superintendent search, and that’s with the support of these outside firms. So, I can appreciate it from firsthand experience, that there is a lot of value in being coached through it, and having an office that already has all the forms developed and processes worked out.
Why is it important to have a network of candidates across the country, and not just look in Shaker for candidates?
I’d just reiterate that in all of the December listening that we did, we heard that the folks here want someone with some kind of Shaker connection. And ultimately it comes down to whatever the hiring body’s judgement is, as to whether ‒ are you looking only outside, are you looking inside and outside, are you looking only inside? In the case where you know you’ve got a person who’s already suited for the job, you probably don’t have as much need for an outside firm. If you’re not sure, or you want to make sure that you’ve got absolutely the best of the best, then maybe you’re considering both. Our two finalist candidates both have ties to Shaker Heights, to this area, to northeast Ohio.
What does the board want to focus on, short-term and long-term, for the district?
Short-term is to bring a great superintendent in here, who can do the things listed in our leadership profile, but who also is going to build and sustain a phenomenal team. That includes building the chemistry ‒ we need to get that person in the door, established, help them gain a greater understanding of who we are and to appreciate all the things we have that are working really, really well. We talked before about needing someone who can help us move forward and improve as a district in general. I mean, we do have areas that we’re focused on for improvement and areas that we’re incredibly proud of. You want to make sure that you go after those areas that need support, without at all diminishing the things that we already do really well. The building relationships and investing in them is extremely important. They’ve just got to be able to bring people together, and I think that’s one of the key elements. Bring people together in a direction, and we will mutually work toward what that direction needs to be, in the medium-term. We’re counting on the judgement of the person that comes in, as well, to tell us, “This is really a two year project rather than a six month one,” so some of that remains to be negotiated with the new leader.
Is there anything you think we’ve missed?
We’re just very enthusiastic about getting a new leader in here. We’ve truly appreciated what Dr. Wilkins did with some challenging circumstances. I know you all watched the Fernway disaster. We’re grateful for that, and we’re looking forward to the next chapter.
Also, the way we’re tracking and analyzing the data is head and shoulders above when I first got involved in this several years ago.
We’ve been reliant on state data. State data has changed, but we’ve added our own internal metrics, and that’s meant a world of difference to understanding what academic achievement looks like.
We’re actually getting some traction in improving in the state report card metrics. And we’ve talked about which factors are more meaningful and which are less meaningful, because there’s a lot in that that penalizes you for the wrong reasons ‒ penalizes you for having a heterogeneous population. You do a lot better if all your kids are in the same category. And some of it is extremely useful and speaks to our actual circumstances, so having it sorted out and presented in the way that it was at this last [work] session was so helpful, and the board was grateful for that.