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.
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.
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