Monday, April 25, 2011

Murley: Clarifying the roles of boards, superintendents

Originally printed April 23, 2010.

If Steve Murley gets hired as the new superintendent of the Iowa City School District, he'll get a lot of fresh data for his dissertation research: Exploring how and why superintendents get evaluated by a lay board while every other educator in the public school system gets evaluated by educators.

"That's an awkward role for both (the board and the superintendent)," Murley said during Wednesday's public interview with the Iowa City School Board.

Murley, who hopes to finish his studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison in December, said his research suggests that school board members address this awkward role by focusing more on the areas in which they have some level of expertise. And as a result, superintendents tend to get evaluated -- whether during hiring decisions or during reviews -- more for their role as an operational leader rather than their role as an educational leader.

As the superintendent of the Wausau (Wis.) School District, Murley saw those two leadership roles -- operational and educational -- collide last year when the executive committee of the Wausau Education Association held a "no confidence" vote in his leadership during the bargaining process. Murley explained Wednesday that cutbacks from state funding -- as well as changes in the state's terms of compensation and caps on district revenue -- led to a perfect storm in which Murley asked for salary freezes, retirements and extra work from all the district's bargaining units.

The tension surely wasn't helped by Murley having spent years as the HR director for the district before becoming superintendent. Because Murley had been the one who handled grievances and established work schedules and rules, he knew how to use the contract effectively -- some union folks may even say deviously -- and the issue was resolved with the teachers agreeing to lower than normal raises along with some retirements.

On Wednesday, Murley said that, once the contract issue was settled, the reconciliation process was able to begin. He has held regular joint leadership meetings with the administration team, the board and the union to "have some very difficult discussions" that are allowing the district to "move forward."

Throughout the interview, Murley emphasized the need for clarifying roles -- after all, in the absence of clear responsibilities, people will just do "whatever they think is right" -- as well as the need to build relationships by putting angry parties in the same room together and working through issues.

But more important than any single answer was the fact that Murley answered all the board's questions both substantially and succinctly. Board members seemed to be scrambling to ask additional questions after their list was exhausted. There even was time for Murley to ask board members to state their vision for what the district would be like in 10 or 15 years. (And the interview still managed to conclude about 15 minutes earlier than scheduled!)

In that short time, Murley showed he knows how important it is to develop communication systems during times of calm to clarify people's roles during times of crisis.

He knows that sometimes, when you are hearing from one section of the community, you have a hard time hearing all the voices from other sections of the community.

And he knows how important it is to move slowly with major changes so that enough people -- especially district employees -- can be involved on the front end of the discussions. (He has learned that, when seeking out employees' input, it's important to make sure it's about issues that are actually "meaningful to them.")

Despite the many operational and educational successes Murley touted Wednesday, the Wausau area still is very different community from the Iowa City area. Murley oversees 8,500 students, 1,200 employees and a $112 million budget. In contrast, outgoing superintendent Lane Plugge oversees about 11,900 students, about 1,600 employees and a roughly $120 million budget.

Whether or not the Iowa City School Board decides Murley is the right fit for the job here -- as opposed to Brad Meeks, who interviewed Thursday, or Mark Bezek, who interviewed Tuesday -- it will be interesting how Murley describes this particular interview process in his dissertation.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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