Published Online: May 10, 2011

Leading Through a Fiscal Nightmare

The impact on principals and superintendents

"Federal stimulus funds are drying up. Districts are hard pressed to raise additional local funds. And states are making deep cuts in their share of K-12 education funding. ... When districts have to lay off teachers, eliminate professional development opportunities, reduce support services, and end effective programs like dropout prevention, students are bound to suffer." —The Center for Public Education (Oct. 7, 2010)

Times are tough. News outlets offer constant reminders about the lingering recession and its effects. State governments are among the hardest hit, with the worst apparently yet to come. The TV news show 60 Minutes, for example, presented a report on Dec. 19, 2010, called “State Budgets: Day of Reckoning.” It highlighted the pending difficulties facing the majority of states due to budget shortfalls. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (McNichol, Oliff, and Johnson 2010) reported that, although conditions appear to have stabilized across the nation, most states anticipate major budget problems for next year. In terms of education, the American Association of School Administrators predicted that there will be “more budget cuts, more job cuts, and fewer resources for programs and personnel” (Ellerson 2010: 6).

What often gets lost as the news about budget woes mounts is that people just like you and me, often our neighbors, are responsible for identifying and implementing the specific cuts. It isn’t easy for leaders, even when they are distant from those being affected. Note the words of Lee Iacocca as he described the pain associated with making cuts when Chrysler was facing bankruptcy in the late 1970s:

"But our struggle had its dark side. To cut expenses, we had to fire a lot of people. It was like a war: we won, but my son didn’t come back. There was a lot of agony. People were getting destroyed, taking their kids out of college, drinking, getting divorced. Overall, we preserved the company, but only at an enormous personal expense for a great many human beings." (Iacocca 1984: 230)

Research offers only minimal guidance to leaders facing harsh budgets. Two lines of inquiry provide some insights for dealing with difficult economic conditions. First, cutback leadership or management, popularized in a recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and recent, related, practitioner-oriented articles offer recipes for managing decline. But many studies in both periods suggest that leaders are ill-equipped for handling difficult economic situations.

Second, crisis management research deals with major crises and tragedies like the mad cow disease scare, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, hurricanes/tsunamis, and other crises that caused significant damage and pain. Such studies analyze factors designed to minimize the effects of a crisis. Crises are often broken down into phases to assist with devising remedies. But here again, the lack of formal preparation for leaders in dealing with crises is a concern.

All this research highlights the importance of maintaining staff morale to keep organizations on track despite difficult circumstances. Little attention, however, focuses on how leaders are affected by guiding an organization through difficult times. Given the centrality of leadership for school success, leader morale and effectiveness in tough times can’t be overemphasized.

Our work examined how principals and superintendents deal with and are affected by a significant economic downturn. We surveyed 93 principals from one large upper-Midwest metropolitan area and 100 superintendents from four states across the country. Follow-up interviews were conducted with selected leaders. Our survey included both forced-choice and open-ended questions. (For an earlier version of the principal data, see Ginsberg and Multon 2010)

Principals and Superintendents React

We learned that over a two-year period in 2009 and 2010, principals reported total budget cuts of 12.83%, with superintendents reporting 10.64%. In terms of satisfaction measures, both principals and superintendents reported high levels of satisfaction. On a scale from 1 (very low) to 7 (very high), principals reported their enjoyment with their position at 6.33, with superintendents reporting at 6.34. Regarding satisfaction with their performance, principals rated it as 5.77, and superintendents rated it at 5.96. On the other hand, both principals (3.19) and superintendents (3.62) reported weaker levels of satisfaction with their personal time. With no data regarding feelings about personal time before budget cuts hit, it’s difficult to say how the cuts specifically affected this measure, though the differences between the responses to this item and the other satisfaction measures is stark.

On a series of health-related questions, both principals and superintendents reported that their health was between average and somewhat better than average for their age. But the health-related news wasn’t all positive. Regarding the impact of budget cuts on physical health (1= gotten much worse, 5 = gotten much better), principals’ mean responses were at 2.49, with superintendents at 2.36.

Indeed, more than 50% of both groups indicated that their health had gotten worse due to budget cuts, and on another health-related question, both groups indicated that they worry about their health.

A series of survey questions focused on the effect of budget cuts on workplace issues. The least impacted issues, with principals less affected than superintendents for each factor, were as follows:

  • Employee to employee relations;
  • Your relations with employees;
  • Your job satisfaction; and
  • Conflict levels in work setting.

The issues that experienced the greatest impact due to budget cuts, with superintendents experiencing greater impact than principals on every issue, included:

  • Challenges faced as leader;
  • Efforts to implement innovation;
  • Services offered; and
  • Morale of faculty and staff.

Thus, our data offered some differing findings. Principals and superintendents get satisfaction from their work, they’re satisfied with their job performance, and, to a large degree, workplace relations don’t appear to have broken down due to budget cuts. At the same time, however, several disturbing findings emerged in reaction to the large budget cuts reported. Principals and superintendents have serious concerns about their personal time (for leisure, relaxation, and personal life), their physical health has been negatively impacted, they worry about their health, and cuts have created significant challenges in areas like making innovative reforms, services offered, and overall faculty and staff morale.

Finding the New Normal

We were particularly interested in understanding what we labeled as the disturbing findings. While job satisfaction remains strong and workplace employee relations appear unaffected by dealing with budget cuts, we were interested in the immediate effects of these disturbing findings and the potential long-term impact of leading in a down economy. Given that the financial outlook remains grim for the near future, we’re concerned about the cumulative impact that ongoing stress related to budget cuts may have. We fear that the continuing financial strain on leadership may potentially compound the disturbing findings we identified. A series of open-ended questions and follow-up interviews provided some insight into these issues.

One over-arching theme emerged that characterized the disturbing findings. Borrowing from McNamee’s book (2002), we named this theme “Trying to Find the New Normal,” referring to the concept of a new normal that’s been created due to the economic stress that pervades our culture. ABC News, for example, reported that “The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the ensuing recession have forced Americans to change their lives in large ways and small. It’s a world of ‘new normals’ with more belt-tightening, less income” (Gomstyn 2009). Similarly, CBS News reported that “The new normal is an expression, and a condition, we may have to get used to … or so many economists are now telling us” (Teichner 2010).

For principals and superintendents, the new normal affects their job in very stressful ways they never anticipated. Many feel that the good work they had done for years is being tossed aside as efforts to just stay afloat dominate. One principal described it this way:

"It is very hard to keep the herd moving in the same direction with less and less support and with the prospect of tougher working conditions in a time when our accountability and scrutiny is at an all-time high. Morale is low in the area of hope for the future. I cannot stress the fact enough that our staff gives their all … but I think we are all feeling like we are rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We feel like our ship is sinking, but we are going to do all that we can until it does."

We found that the components of the new normal differed slightly for principals and superintendents.

For principals, the key factors included: 1) doing more with less, 2) all cuts impact students and teachers, 3) tornadoes of negativity, and 4) concerns about stress.

For superintendents, the new normal meant: 1) living in a survival mode, 2) disappointment with the territorial nature of some staff and attitude of policymakers, 3) loss of joy for the job, and 4) concerns about stress with a real need to wear a “happy face.”

The New Normal for Principals

Doing more with less. Principals said they are being forced to provide greater levels of service with fewer resources. Indeed, expectations are increasing for schools as high-profile outcome criteria like adequate yearly progress (AYP) continue to rise while cuts are affecting services that could benefit many students. One principal explained, “We are expected to do more and more with less and less, and the challenges are not getting any less while societal pressures on staff and students increase.” Another said, “NCLB nails us with AYP, yet we can’t provide programming to overcome the challenges.” Principals consistently commented on the growing levels of stress and concern while having to do more with less.

All cuts impact students and teachers. Principals were clear that anyone who thinks that all cuts, no matter where they’re focused, don’t affect classrooms doesn’t really understand the culture of schools. Students and teachers are affected by all cuts leveled at schools. Note this explanation one principal provided:

"It is impossible to make cuts in a district and not have it impact teachers and students. We cut a secretary and many tasks are now falling to teachers. This takes up their precious time to prepare for students. We cut a technology integration person, and now teachers are having to spend more time researching web sites and online projects. We cut a mail delivery person, and now secretaries and paras are having to do curbside pickup and drop-off of mail so the mail can travel on buses. It has further added to our already reduced office staff."

Tornadoes of negativity. Though some principals reported that staff have rallied together due to budget cuts, most were very concerned about the negativity the cuts had generated. It was taking a toll on the principals. For example, one commented, “I felt attacked by teachers who believed I played a role in decisions.” Another lamented the “reduced levels of trust with employees.” One principal summed it up this way:

"I was and continue to be surprised at how some people react. I had typically reasonable people telling me that they weren’t going to do their job. … I feel we have taken a huge step backwards in our communication, trust, and cooperation. So, we have more work to do and are working together more poorly."

Concerns about stress. Principals reported concerns about growing stress levels. In response to a question about health, 70% used the term stress or described stress-related symptoms in their responses. The principals talked about less time for family and exercise, less excitement about the job, and a bevy of growing stress-related health symptoms. One typical comment said, “I don’t sleep at night. I get little exercise. I don’t take vacations because I think I shouldn’t. I don’t spend quality time with my family.” Another told us, “More stress has caused headaches, backaches, anxiety, and sleeplessness.” One principal succinctly summed up as follows: “Because of the long hours at work, I have to choose between exercise or sleep ... I choose sleep.”

The New Normal for Superintendents

Living in 'survival mode'. Superintendents reported that much of the reform and innovative work under way in their districts had ceased. Cuts had forced them to focus on basic processes and nothing more. Faculty and staff were notably concerned about the future. One superintendent summed up the theme this way:

"Innovation has almost ground to a halt. You can’t push forward with new innovations without the funding to see them through. … Everyone has an opinion about what should be cut and that causes relationship problems. I walk a fine line between helping them realistically understand what our problems are and assuring them that everything will be OK."

Disappointment. Superintendents voiced a common theme of disappointment with how significant numbers of individuals — both in the district and beyond — responded to the tough budget climate and potential cuts. In the districts, superintendents reported: “No one wants to believe we have to make cuts. Individuals are territorial and defensive”; “Everyone tries to protect their turf”; “[There is] a lack of various entities’ willingness to part with anything.” Externally, much dismay was voiced about legislators and how they dealt with schools. One superintendent was disappointed “that the legislature is willing to dismantle public education.” Another was more scathing, talking about “the complete ignorance and self-serving attitude of many legislators ... who only want to get themselves re-elected ...” This superintendent concluded, “I am shocked that more of our state leaders don’t demonstrate leadership at a crucial time when it is needed.”

Loss of joy for the job. A large number of superintendents talked about how awful the job was becoming and how retirement or other types of work are becoming very appealing. One superintendent’ s comments vividly expressed this sentiment:

"I am very discouraged in my job. I have always prided myself in doing everything possible to provide for the learning of all children. For the first time in my career, I cannot do this any longer. In fact, I feel as though I am at a point where I have to say that it is OK for some kids to fail because we cannot provide the extra help they need. Some of the programs that are being discussed to eliminate are the very programs that keep some kids in school. I feel as though I am failing the kids. For the first time in 26 years, I wonder if I need to think about working in a different state or if I should begin thinking about a career change."

Wearing the happy face. Leaders often believe they must appear calm and collected during difficult times. That leaves little room for them to publicly express simple human emotions. Leaders in such a conception of their role must show they are strong. So, it’s no surprise that superintendents talked about their own behavior in these terms. For example, one suggested, “I learned to put on my happy face, be an active listener, validate people’s concerns, show genuine empathy and sympathy when appropriate.” Another explained, “You have to work hard not to get caught up in the emotion. You have to be the calm in the storm.”

Ways to Survive

The principals and superintendents we worked with also suggested ways to cope with periods of fiscal strain. Part of the formula is dispositional, part personal, and the rest is action-oriented. First, principals and superintendents adopted a “can-do” attitude even in the face of difficult budgetary decisions.

On one of the scales we used in our survey, both principals and superintendents reported strong responses to questions about finding their way out of a jam, solving problems, and energetically pursuing their goals. In open-ended responses, they talked about “pushing forward with a positive attitude to keep things going well,” “support[ing] staff and find[ing] ways to be encouraging,” and “approach[ing] the cuts with a ‘can do’ attitude to keep everyone’s hope alive and put a positive spin on the challenge reassuring the staff ...” A superintendent summed it up well: “I have not taken any of the concerns personally even though I have been frustrated. I try to be very positive and focus on what we can provide not what we cannot provide.”

Second, we were consistently told about the importance of taking care of yourself. For some, this meant exercising more, watching sleep patterns, eating properly, and making time for family and friends. For others, it involved creating support networks so they aren’t isolated and have colleagues to interact with. But the theme was clear: Find ways to take care of your health by creating work and home environments that can help you deal with the job-created stress. Some talked about the balance that must be created. One principal told us, “I try to keep a balance. Life is bigger than this position.” Another explained, “I manage what I can, accept what I can’t control, and make the best of the situation. Know that I am doing the best to set the priorities where they need to be.” Superintendents provided similar feedback. One concluded, “I leave the issues of my job at the job when I leave in the evening.”

Finally, a specific set of actions were identified, including planning and maintaining clear communication and transparency throughout a budget-cutting process. One principal talked about “planning for the worst case scenario.” Others talked about bringing in interested and potentially affected parties to brainstorm possible solutions. Superintendents emphasized the importance of complete information and getting the facts straight. One said, “It is never too early to have contingency plans in place.”

Everyone emphasized the importance of ongoing communication. The grapevine was described as inaccurate and potentially damaging. Rumor control is best handled with open and consistent communication. As one superintendent told us, “Communication is vital. All budget cuts affect an individual. All budget cuts affect the quality of education.” Another concluded, “For success, various entities must be involved and collaboration must occur.”

Final Thoughts

Principals and superintendents are dealing with tough budget-related decisions. The economic outlook for the foreseeable future in most states is bleak. Tending to the health-related and emotional needs of administrators makes sense, given their crucial role in leading schools and districts. Our data suggest that school leaders are a resilient breed, but areas of concern are emerging. This appears more significant for superintendents than principals, though both groups are clearly impacted. Given the climate of growing federal and state pressure on student performance, finding ways to help leaders personally navigate difficult economic conditions seems paramount.

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