Special Report
School & District Management

Making Decisions Is Harder Than Ever. How District Leaders Can Manage Tough Calls

By Kevin Bushweller — April 27, 2021 11 min read

In the business world, there’s a leadership concept about the modern decisionmaking environment called VUCA. It’s a funny-sounding acronym that was around long before the pandemic, but it has become especially hot over the past year. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

District and school leaders do not use the acronym regularly and many are unaware of it. But nearly all district and school leaders are immersed in it more than ever, and it is beginning to show up in high level education circles. School Administrator, the magazine of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, for instance, published an August cover story about “Operating in a VUCA World.”

“If you don’t accept business principles, you will get lost in this mess,” said Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent of the Dallas school district.

He should know.

On top of the historic educational and economic disruption caused by COVID-19 over the past year, the Dallas area was hit by a winter storm across the state in February that shut down the power grid and created chaos for weeks. In a 145,000-student school system where nearly 9 of every 10 children are from low-income families, that one-two punch further complicated decisions about how to feed and educate already vulnerable kids.

Despite the pandemic’s challenges, however, the school district managed late last year to get voters to approve a $3.5 billion dollar construction and technology bond, the largest school bond in Texas history. Hinojosa chalks up the success to a much-more sophisticated planning process built on business principles and an understanding of how poor decisionmaking can derail educational priorities.

“Running a school district is one of the toughest, most complex jobs in America,” said John J-H Kim, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and the CEO of the District Management Group, which advises district leaders on decisionmaking. “People are feeling [VUCA], they’re living it, the meaning behind it.”

Education Week interviewed district leaders around the country to better understand how they and their leadership teams make decisions in increasingly complex environments. What became clear in those interviews is that this trend started years ago, escalated during the pandemic, and will likely be the environment everyone is living in for the foreseeable future.

Following are lessons from three district leaders on what they learned as they worked through complicated, volatile decisionmaking challenges over the past year.

Weighing options for displaced students after a destructive fire

Victor Shandor, the superintendent of the York County schools in Virginia, started his educational career as a special education teacher. In his teaching days, he was always struck by how meetings about individualized education programs for students with disabilities were much too often emotionally charged, volatile experiences, with parents and advocates pitted against educators. He remembers his peers really struggling with the decisionmaking process.

While working as a special education director for the Cabarrus County schools in North Carolina earlier in his career, he learned about the field of “decision analysis” from a fellow educator in a graduate program, who connected him to a nonprofit consulting company called TregoED.

Shandor took the TregoED decisionmaking strategies back to Cabarrus and then to Fulton County, Ga., where he served as an area superintendent, before landing the top job in York County in 2014.

On Feb. 3, 2020, the electrical room in a massive educational complex housing a high school and middle school in York County caught fire and triggered an explosion, shutting down power and pushing thick smoke throughout the inside of the facility.

“Shortly after fire officials contained the situation, I visited the school to visually assess, and realized instantly the magnitude of this event,” Shandor said. “With no power, and smoke still present, it was both difficult to see and breath as I entered the building.”

He knew this would not be a quick fix.

That night, he met with his leadership team to talk about two important questions: What and how long would it take to restore the building? And what would be the best plan to keep school going for the displaced students? The leadership team then established 15 criteria for getting the kids back in school—including non-negotiables, such as the state’s seat-time requirements for students.

Soon after the fire, the potential for VUCA chaos in the 12,900-student district began circling. People in the community started urgently suggesting ideas on the York County VA 411 Facebook group, which has about 22,000 members. One of the more popular ideas was to relocate the displaced students to an empty Kmart warehouse. But there were major safety, security, transportation, and even bathroom considerations that those pushing the plan had not weighed.

“People put out there all these ideas of things to do,” recalled Heather Young, the principal of York County’s Tabb Middle School, which was not part of the damaged facility but was critical to how the displaced middle schoolers would be educated. “It was chaos, actually. There were so many decisions that had to be made. It was so complex.”

Shandor added: “People jump to solutions instead of following the process.”

District leaders identified nine options they evaluated, including the one to move the school to the empty warehouse. They explained the benefits and drawbacks of each option at a public meeting, and outlined why they ultimately settled on a plan to create a hybrid learning model, in which the displaced high school students attended classes at another district high school on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and learned remotely on two other days. The students already enrolled at the high school attended classes in their building Mondays , Wednesdays, and Fridays. The displaced middle school students experienced a similar model at Tabb Middle.

“We did that for a month before COVID hit,” said Shandor.

After the pandemic’s impact reached Virginia, Shandor turned again to the decisionmaking strategies in trying to establish a plan for full-time remote learning. He established two relatively simple, guiding priorities: continuity of learning and connections with students and families. The district started the 2020-21 school year in full-time remote mode and gradually transitioned back to a hybrid model, bringing pre-K-2 students, children with special needs, and English- language learners back to school buildings first. “We took a crawl, walk, run approach” to getting kids back in school buildings, he said.

Kathleen Eisenhardt, co-author of Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World and S.W. Ascherman MD professor of strategy at Stanford University’s school of engineering, said when businesses and organizations like school districts have to make big decisions involving a variety of engaged stakeholders, it’s best to show multiple options but probably no more than three or four. People have trouble focusing on five or more, and “naturally gravitate to one alternative,” she said.

Eisenhardt also suggests schools consider the two-option approach—what’s called A/B testing in the business world—for decision-oriented experimentation around relatively smaller decisions. Doing that can reveal surprising results. In an A/B study done before the pandemic, Eisenhardt said Airbnb wanted to find out whether or not it was easier to recruit homeowners to rent out rooms via the room rental app by holding an in-person party or using social media. It turned out holding a party worked better.

“In more-progressive companies these days, there is an emphasis on constantly experimenting,” said Eisenhardt, adding that “education is a great place to do lots of little experiments” too.

How to pass a $3.5 billion school bond during a pandemic

Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa emphasizes that school districts are fundamentally different organizations than businesses. They serve kids, not customers. And school districts are beholden to far more local, state, and federal rules and regulations than businesses.

But to master the complexities of running a school district with an operating budget of $1.6 billion, 22,000 employees, and 145,000 students, the lifelong educator said he has read many more books about business than education in his time as a district leader. And he insists that they helped him make the decisions necessary to pass a record-setting bond initiative during a pandemic.

The days of heavy-handed, top-down decisionmaking are over. It just doesn’t work in a complex world, a perspective shared by everyone interviewed for this story.

That’s why Hinojosa set up a 100-member bond initiative task force about a year before the pandemic that included district employees as well as parents and community members. The executive committee for the task force had 16 members, with participation from all the area superintendents as well as city and county officials, and subcommittees for academics, athletics, facilities, safety/security, finance, technology, and transformation/innovation.

Setting up the task force allowed Hinojosa to apply two big lessons he had learned over the years about why transformation fails: a sense of urgency is not established, and there is no guiding coalition to solve the problem.

Transparency was also a big priority, Hinojosa said. He opened task force meetings to the media from the beginning. “That’s how you deal with the volatility, by being transparent,” he said.

The task force had to build a plan for a bond that would address the aging buildings in the district, but without triggering a permanent property tax rate increase for city residents.

The members of the task force eventually boiled down the many priorities into five separate bond propositions that would appear on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot covering school construction, technology, athletic stadium improvements, a new performing arts facility, and improvements to the district’s indoor swimming facilities. Because former President Donald Trump was also on the ballot, Hinojosa was confident turnout would be high in a heavily Democratic-leaning district, improving the chances of the bond’s passage.

The two biggest propositions —construction and technology, totaling $3.5 billion—were approved by voters by relatively slim margins. The three others failed.

Looking ahead, Hinojosa said he now faces big decisions about complex challenges related to how to get the best return on investment from the bond, professional development initiatives to help educators integrate digital devices into teaching and learning, and—arguably the biggest one—addressing learning loss that happened during the pandemic.

“Our most challenging problem is how we catch up by going to acceleration [of learning], not remediation,” he said. “That is going to be a big hill to climb.”

Making better decisions in a time-pressured environment

One of the most difficult and complex decisions district and school leaders face, whether operating in a pandemic or not, is when a decision meant to do what is best for kids is not necessarily what educators are comfortable with.

Michael Lubelfeld, the superintendent of North Shore School District 112 in Illinois, knows that feeling all too well.

Over the past year, he has felt the decisionmaking heat from parents and teachers. In one case, a parent sent him a strongly worded email petition signed by about 100 people demanding that the district move from hybrid instruction to fully in-person instruction. He responded with a public letter to the whole school community outlining why the district was sticking with the hybrid model.

On the other side, he was criticized by some teachers last summer after he announced the district would be operating a hybrid learning model in the fall in which most teachers would return to school buildings. Some teachers were worried about returning before getting vaccinated for COVID-19.

To help make big decisions in a time-pressured environment, Lubelfeld sought the help of John J-H Kim, the Harvard Business School senior lecturer who runs the District Management Group.

dmg approach final final

Kim helped Lubelfeld and his leadership team develop a strict protocol for problem and solution identification for better decisionmaking for the 3,700-student, K-8 district.

“That playbook not only got us going in September, but kept us open in September,” said Lubelfeld, whose district started with a hybrid model at the beginning of the school year but is now running mostly in-person instruction.

The district used one approach for problem identification that Lubelfeld has championed for years: surveying students, parents, and staff several times about what they felt was working and what was not. District officials quickly learned that the quality of school-issued technology devices was not up to par for scaled-up remote learning, and that some of the online learning providers the district contracted with were good, and some were not.

“Surveying helped us fix problems relatively quickly once they arose,” Lubelfeld said.

From the get-go, Lubelfeld reached out to teachers’ union leaders, said Sheri Henkel, president of the North Shore Education Association. Henkel and Lubelfeld were in contact almost daily during some periods of time and weekly over the long haul.

Working closely with Henkel and local health care providers this school year, the district put a voluntary vaccine initiative in motion that resulted in 95 percent of all employees getting vaccinated, Lubelfeld said. Instruction in the district is now 90 percent fully in-person, a transition that happened in early April.

Henkel said that regular communication helped stave off antagonism that erupted between unions and district leadership in nearby school systems. Nurturing that relationship will have benefits long after the pandemic passes, she predicts.

“All the things we learned this year [about decisionmaking] are going to have an impact going forward,” Henkel said.

Source List: Education Week spoke to many experts for this installment. In alphabetical order they are: Shari L. Camhi, superintendent, Baldwin Union Free School District, Baldwin, N.Y.; Michael W. Curran-Hays, executive director, TregoED; Kathleen Eisenhardt, co-author, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World and the S.W. Ascherman MD Professor of strategy, Stanford University’s school of engineering; Mark Finstrom, chief technology officer, Highline Public Schools, Wash.; Sheri Henkel, president, North Shore Education Association; Michael Hinojosa, superintendent, Dallas Independent School District; John J-H Kim, Senior Lecturer, Harvard Business School and CEO, District Management Group; Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent, North Shore School District 112, Ill.; Jeaneen R. Schmidt, executive coach & facilitator; Victor Shandor, superintendent, York County School Division, Va.; Alicia S. Tate, Director of Leadership Services, TregoED; Heather Young, principal, Tabb Middle School, York County, Va.

Documents: “Operating in a VUCA World” by Raymond J. McNulty, School Administrator (August 2020); Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt (2015); Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011); TregoED Approach and Analytic Problem-Solving Tools; Addressing Special Education Challenges, TregoED; “Ready for anything: Making complex decisions with confidence and clarity” by Victor Shandor, District Administration (June 2020); “Grafton fire update: York County Schools have finalized sked for the rest of the year” by Lucretia Cunningham, WYDaily (February 2020); “Five Things to Know About the Record-Setting 2020 Dallas ISD Bond Package” by Corbett Smith, Dallas Morning News (October 2020); A Leadership Guide to Navigating the Unknown in Education: New Narratives Amid COVID-19 by Sally J. Zepeda and Philip D. Lanoue (2021); Citizens Bond Steering Committee PowerPoint Presentation, Dallas Independent School District (March 2020); Citizens Bond Steering Committee Meeting Minutes, Dallas Independent School District (September 2019); North Shore School District 112 Superintendent Michael Lubelfeld’s Public Response to Email Petition to Return to In-Person Learning (October 2020); Reopening of Schools PowerPoint Presentation to North Shore School District 112 Board of Education (June 2020); Dallas Independent School District List of Committees and Names of Committee Members for 100-Member Bond Task Force; Baldwin Schools in 2035: Learning for an Uncertain Future, Baldwin Union Free School District in New York; “What VUCA Really Means for You” by Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine, Harvard Business Review (January 2014)

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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