Tim Jenney, the departing superintendent in Virginia Beach, Va., has dodged a number of bullets during his nine years there. The teacher's association came out swinging in their first meeting, threatening to banish him. The school board aimed to ax the pugnacious leader on the eve of the Columbine tragedy. All the while, city officials and some business leaders have tried to subdue and subjugate the former high school wrestler.
In Jenney's case, popularity and proven leadership are at odds. For Virginia's second largest district has been transformed from average to superior under his charge.
His first task in 1996? Correcting a $12 million deficit. Jenney succeeded, creating a $400,000 surplus in months. Yet locals were out for blood, demanding someone reign him in. "It's fairly easy to fix financial problems," confides Jenney. "Changing culture and bad habits creates conflict."
But the leader kept to his game plan. "He's very focused on achievement, curriculum alignment and accountability," says Assistant Superintendent Kathleen O'Hara Phipps. The fearless Jenney championed controversial causes like merit pay and year-round schools. Virginia Beach emerged an academic powerhouse. Jenney garnered national awards.
Yet at home, notes Phipps, the superintendent "doesn't get the credit he deserves." Jenney traces his image problems to a grand jury report early on, which uncovered financial irregularities and forced the entire board to resign. In a few short months, 24 different faces rotated through the 11-member board. "The stage was set," he recalls. "There was no one in charge and no institutional memory. If I didn't do it, it didn't get done."
Making of a Leader
At 17, Jenney announced his goal--to be an elementary teacher and then a principal by age 28. He credits a demanding junior/senior high football coach with fueling his ambition.
The wrestling arena provided extra conditioning for young Jenney. "It's one-on-one in the arena. The sport demands agility, inner strength and confidence," he says.
The drive to succeed came in handy during student teaching when he received a particularly brutal critique. Instead of giving up, Jenney "buckled down and worked harder"--earning the teacher title as well as a principalship, a whole year earlier than planned.
Defeat = Victory
Somehow Jenney's playbook transforms defeat into victory. Take his Smart Start Initiative, which won approval from the Virginia board of education to bypass a law prohibiting a pre-labor Day start to the school year. With pressure from the hospitality industry, the local Virginia Beach board conceded, and the district school year still begins after the holiday.
Jenney sees the positives--such as the added staff development days and instructional time that were also part of the initiative. "We really got three-quarters of what we wanted," he says.
A Fan Club?
Despite the rabid anti-Jenney gang, there are Jenney supporters. A core group of teachers, primarily high performers, really likes him, says Phipps. The business community values his fiscal responsibility. And Tidewater Community College and the city joined hands with the local pariah to build a cutting edge Advanced Technology Center.
Post Game Show
There's come a time when every athlete must ask whether his body can endure his sport.
In his 40s, Jenney questioned his ability to tolerate the volatile nature of the profession for another 10 to 15 years. He answered no and found a new playing field, returning to graduate school and completing an MBA in July 2004. This summer Jenney exchanged his K-12 uniform for the garb of a new position in the city--vice president for corporate and government relations at Regent University.
Lisa Fratt is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.