Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 24, 2009
Our View - A challenge for Lane Plugge during his final six months
Now that Iowa City School Superintendent Lane Plugge has announced he will be leaving his job June 30, 2010, both his supporters and detractors are left wondering how he will finish out his decade-long tenure as the head of Iowa City area schools.
Just about everyone agrees that Plugge is a "nice guy." But supporters and detractors disagree on whether Plugge's aggressive congeniality has been a benefit or a detriment to his leadership over the past 10 years.
Plugge's supporters say his easygoing personality is an essential skill in his line of work. Without it, they say, Plugge never could have navigated through the prickly personalities and policies that pop up throughout the district. Although they may admit that Plugge has made some questionable decisions along the way, they point out that Iowa City area schools still are well "above average." And they say that the fact several of the schools are on the Schools in Need of Assistance List has more to do with the failure of No Child Left Behind than it does with any aspect Plugge's leadership.
Plugge's detractors -- the more tactful ones, anyway -- often admit that the outgoing superintendent has a lot of the skills required for succeeding in the job. Although they recognize that Plugge is very knowledgeable about what's happening in the district, they complain that he is constitutionally allergic to conflict and, thus, unwilling (or unable) to make the hard decisions that need to be made. They say the painful problems that have dogged Plugge for the past year -- from the backlash over the decision to close Roosevelt, to needing to trim millions from the budget to get under spending authority, to the recent flack over cutting busing to Regina -- are just the present-day consequences of Plugge's earlier administrative shortcomings.
We, however, don't think the time has yet come for anyone to properly evaluate how well Plugge has done for Iowa City schools. The Nebraska native still has six months to go -- and a lot of work to do -- before he can ride off into the western Iowa sunset.
Rather than praise or condemn Plugge's role as administrator, we think it's more important right now to challenge him to live up fully to his supporters' praise and to provide the strong leadership over the next six months that his detractors say has been lacking in the past 9½ years.
After all, the district is going to need such careful, thoughtful, decisive leadership to see it through its current redistricting process. That leadership and direction can't come from any paid consultants.
We know there are a lot of perks to being a superintendent in the Iowa City area. This district serves an amazingly over-educated population who readily opens up its wallet -- for bond issues and local option sales taxes -- to ensure that "all the children are above average." And we know that there are both wonderful headaches and painful benefits that come with overseeing a growing district.
But we only can imagine how hard it is for Iowa City superintendents to juggle all their responsibilities while standing under the never-ending critical gaze of a district stuffed full of self-appointed educational experts. And only very few people can know firsthand what it's like to receive such a constant barrage of advice from people who argue passionately and relentlessly for their personal view of what's best for their child, their school and "our" side of town.
To function in the job, Iowa City superintendents need to keep telling themselves -- despite all the evidence to the contrary -- that they are some of the few people actually able to envision what's best for the district as a whole. Yes, they need to be open and accessible to their employees. Yes, they need seek out and to listen to the families who will be affected by their decisions. But they also have to believe in themselves enough to make necessary decisions that are going to make no one happy -- not even them.
With the district going through the painful process of redrawing the boundaries around every school, we urge Plugge to be willing to make some very hard decisions over the next six months -- decisions that the School Board and the next superintendent can build on.