Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

How Do You Manage a District Through a Crisis? Together

This past year, leaders had to face looming public health threats, volatile public opinion, and mounting financial pressures
By Morcease Beasley — July 08, 2021 2 min read
A lone figure approaches the team he will assemble.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This past school year, I had to make difficult decisions in an environment that grew more contentious daily, as public opinion fluctuated and split. This was my fourth year as superintendent, and I felt the political pressure mounting.

Over the winter, I faced more pressure to reopen in a community fed up with the reality that our students had been engaged in virtual learning since March 16, 2020. But the district’s finances and the community’s anxiety about student and staff safety posed leadership challenges equally.

This February, while staring at $37 million in COVID-19-related expenses, I sucked in my breath when my staff presented me with an additional $4 million proposal for expensive HVAC systems with complex ionization and purification technologies to filter school and classroom air. These expenditures might readily be justified by the real threat of airborne particles and viruses. But I worried that the costs were exorbitant when there were still real questions about their efficacy.

About This Series

Over the coming weeks we will be rolling out 17 lessons from experienced district leaders who spent the last year leading from home. Learn more and see the full collection of lessons.

Would this equipment work? Did we really want to spend $4 million when some of the science indicated it could not guarantee a safe learning environment for in-person instruction? The science was unclear, but I needed to reassure parents and the public that students were in good hands. And I needed to ensure our buildings were safe whenever we reopened. This issue was keeping me awake at night.

Working at the kitchen table, I had an epiphany: My opinion is just one of many. I needed to find others to share the burden, so I turned to my nine-member board of education. What did they think about spending $4 million on air-filtration systems? I could lay out the pros and cons of various options, share my honest opinions with the board, and seek the members’ suggestions. I didn’t have to carry the full weight of the decision.

I didn’t have to wait long for comments. The chair immediately responded that she had seen reports in the press about this technology. Moreover, she said, parents were upset that a neighboring district had spent money on this particular product while we had yet to do so. A huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer felt that the decision was my responsibility alone. With the board’s input, we ultimately did not purchase the systems. As my community debated when to reopen our schools in person, I was able to look to my board for similar shared decisionmaking.

Not every challenge requires board input. Traditional leadership approaches—asking questions, discussing differences, and expecting collaboration—are perfectly appropriate in most situations. For big issues that involve the public, including significant expenditures and life-and-death questions about school safety, you don’t have to be the Lone Ranger. Indeed, you shouldn’t be. Find allies on the board and in the community to shoulder some of the heavy load you carry.

Complete Collection

Superintendents discuss ideas at a roundtable.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images

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.

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion ‘This Is Not What We Signed Up For’: A Principal’s Plea for More Support
School leaders are playing the role of health-care experts, social workers, mask enforcers, and more. It’s taking a serious toll.
Kristen St. Germain
3 min read
Illustration of a professional woman walking a tightrope.
Laura Baker/Education Week and uzenzen/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Educators Must Look to History When They Advocate for Changes
Educators and policymakers must be aware of the history of ideas when making changes in education, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Reconsidering Causes of Principal Burnout
The state and federal governments are asking us to implement policies that often go against our beliefs, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management From Our Research Center Just How Widespread Are the Threats to Educators Over COVID Policies?
An EdWeek Research Center survey asked district and school leaders if they, or anyone on their staff, had faced threats.

3 min read
Seminole County, Fla., deputies remove a parent from a school board meeting during a heated discussion about mask mandates in September.
Seminole County, Fla., deputies remove a parent from a school board meeting during a heated discussion about mask mandates in September.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP