SPECIAL REPORT: States of Debate: The Die-Hard Communicator

SPECIAL REPORT: States of Debate: The Die-Hard Communicator

Margaret Smith, the superintendent of Volusia County (Fla.) School District, uses her collaborative leadership style to get the job done.

In the six years since her appointment as superintendent of Volusia County (Fla.) School District—a district that has 63,000 students in 16 cities, including Daytona Beach, in the heart of Florida's east coast—Margaret Smith has had her share of success. But what makes her so different from other superintendents is her ability to reach out.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), says that Smith collaborates with others, choosing not to work in isolation, which a lot of other superintendents do, according to AASA studies and Domenech's own observations. "She's taken a leadership role in working with AASA to provide leadership development and information to her colleagues," says Domenech, himself a former superintendent.

Candace Lankford, the Volusia County Board of Education chairwoman and Florida School Boards Association president-elect, pointed to a recent story in the Orlando Sentinel that features Smith above the fold as a superintendent who is doing a good job of keeping district costs down. In April, she attended an AASA meeting in D.C. to discuss federal education policy. "She's a much better multitasker than her predecessor," Lankford says. "Mr. Bill Hall was a fine man, but he faced a much different environment than the one facing Dr. Smith."

Tough Leader for Tough Times

Volusia County is a rapidly growing, progressive area. Daytona Beach, DeLand, Deltona, Ormond Beach and Port Orange are its largest metropolitan areas. It's Florida's 10th-largest school district and the largest employer in the county. All its teachers are state certified; and during Smith's tenure, Florida voters passed a classroom size reduction amendment, which the districts have implemented, and she has faced declining student enrollment—the first time in over 25 years that there was no gain in students in Volusia County in the 2007-2008 school year—and weathered the dramatic and devastating statewide budget shortfall. "Not an easy time to lead a school district of 62,000 students," says Lankford. Since the 2007-2008 school year, Smith has cut a total of $54 million from the budget, closed six small schools, and downsized 1,100 positions.

"These tasks aren't for the faint of heart," says Lankford. "Dr. Smith is not afraid to make tough decisions, but only after thoroughly reviewing all aspects of a situation. While she's innovative, she is also pragmatic. And most importantly, she communicates almost daily with her board and is always available to address our concerns and challenges."

Smith pauses thoughtfully before responding to questions, and then speaks very deliberately and often at great length. She says, "What I have found over the years—and I've been in this business a very long time [she began as an administrator in 1974]—is that in order to bring about change and student achievement, it's so important to work with others to identify goals, what's going to get us there, and then all the strategies and procedures we have to implement to reach our goals.

"I believe that each student will learn," she adds. "That's what drives me. It's not that each student can learn, but that they will learn. In order to bring that about, I believe I have to be very collaborative."

Participative Leadership

As president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, Smith was elected by her peers as Florida's 2009- 2010 Superintendent of the Year. But to her, it's more an indicator of her management style than a crowning achievement.

"I practice participative leadership," Smith says. What she means by "participative" is keeping a schedule that would put a presidential candidate to shame and seemingly require at least half a dozen doppelgangers to pull off. It means being "very, very visible," she explains. "It also takes a high energy level, which I have, and it has to be with all of the various groups."

Smith sits with Candace Lankford, the Volusia County Board of Education chairwoman, during a staff meeting. Lankford credits Smith with multi-tasking and working through a budget in crisis.

Indeed, Smith meets, listens, speaks, strategizes, negotiates, encourages, supports and otherwise communicates with dozens of people daily, including high school student government leaders, teachers, district advisory committees, PTAs, PTOs, the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce (she's on the board), the Volusia County government, state legislators, Gov. Charles Crist, three union presidents, and a 10-school Tampa Bay Central Florida Partnership comprised of various corporate and community business leaders.

In April, Smith hosted a learning tour for education leaders from Chicago who wanted to visit the district. "It's called Team Volusia," says Smith. And it's an unofficial public relations campaign within the district to nurture a team mentality among staff, parents and the community. "That best describes our leadership style: teamwork, partnering, problem solving, collaboration. I've had broad experiences and have been able to learn what I think an effective superintendent is. Visibility is very, very much key."

With AASA, Smith serves on the board of governors and travels to Washington, D.C., to collaborate in person. Smith is also one of the founding members of a new plan to form a Council of County Superintendents, according to Amy Vogt of AASA. "It's an exciting initiative," she says.

The council would be comprised of county superintendents—mostly from Maryland to Louisiana, where most countywide districts in the nation exist— who would share best practices and work together to have a voice at the federal level, pushing for more impact on federal legislation. Countywide districts enroll about 20 percent of all schoolchildren in the nation, the equivalent of 100 of the largest city school districts, according to AASA.

AASA already has a rural superintendents council and is working on starting an urban group. "Although they [county superintendents] share much in common with all superintendents, there are some different needs for county superintendents," Smith says.

Smith speaks with kindergarteners in the media center at the Sweetwater Elementary School in Port Orange, Fla. Smith is a strong believer that all children can and will learn.

Smith is also very aware of events in her state and at the national level and wants her colleagues to be aware of how those events could affect them, says Domenech. "Being aware of funding opportunities and changes in the laws that might affect her district is critical in these economic times when districts are having to slash budgets, programs and services," he says. For example, Smith has kept a careful watch on district-level requirements of the Race to the Top grants, which could potentially net the state nearly a billion dollars.

Smith is "an intelligent and articulate leader, and I very much enjoy my interactions with her and see her as a great role model for aspiring system leaders," Domenech adds.

Back at the state level, Eric J. Smith (no relation), Florida's commissioner of education, says that Smith is "one of the most dedicated education professionals I know, and the state of Florida is lucky to have someone of her caliber leading one of our largest school districts." He adds, "Her collaborative leadership style works exceptionally well in building positive relationships that encourage continued academic success. Her belief that every student can be successful compels each of us to remain focused on what is truly important and that every child be given the opportunity to excel."

Not All Sunshine and Smiles

While the superintendent certainly has a lot of fans, it's not all sunshine and smiles. Andrew Spar, head of the Volusia Teachers Organization, the union representing many of the county's more than 4,000 teachers, has had less than kind words for Smith. In the summer of 2008, with tensions mounting due to various budgetary issues—primarily teacher pay and personnel cuts—Spar accused Smith of fuzzy math, cutting more teacher positions than necessary, not following the teachers' contract, attempting to cover up poor district management and incompetence.

While Smith had contended with critics before, she felt that Spar had crossed the line. "I wanted to send a very strong message to our community that this individual was not portraying accurate information," Smith says. "He was really defaming me."

Smith filed a lawsuit as a private citizen against Spar in his capacity as the union leader. She dropped her case after a few months, having worked things through with Spar.

 

Was it worth it? "It did have the result I wanted—he backed off. Not that he doesn't have different opinions," says Smith. "But it's no longer on a vindictive, hostile, personal level. We have re-established a personal relationship." Water under the bridge? Perhaps. In fact, Spar and Smith came down on the same side of a highly controversial state Senate bill that would have tied teacher pay directly to student achievement and made it easier to fire teachers. Smith wrote a strongly worded letter to Gov. Crist urging him to veto it, which he did in April.

"Do I believe in merit pay and performance pay? I do," says Smith. "But there are a lot of issues on which we have to work together with our teachers and our teachers union and principals in order to develop an instrument that is fair, and that we can be successful in implementing."

But if past teacher and budget challenges were a Florida gale, a full-on financial hurricane may now be brewing. On top of all the current budget cuts, in 2011, federal stimulus money, currently the lifeline for 540 teacher salaries, runs out.

"It's hard to imagine how we're going to continue to offer education in the way that we do now," Smith says. "Fewer people, fewer programs and a different way of delivering instruction lie ahead. We've already tightened the belt significantly, so it's hard."

Smith earned praise in 2008 when she insisted on taking a 2 percent pay cut ($3,503 off her $175,168 salary) even while earning an "outstanding" rating on her job performance review. But she didn't always enjoy such compensation for her efforts. And she's been through tougher times.

Leader of the Pack

Born in Grove City, Pa., in the rural, northwest corner of the state, Smith was the oldest of seven. She often was left in charge of her siblings, as both her parents worked—her father as a construction laborer and mother as a store clerk or as a waitress. Though they never finished high school, "I'll tell you, my parents had the work ethic," says Smith. "And I think my energy level comes from being so responsible at a young age. I understood that education was a key to my future and to what I wanted to do."

Smith attended several colleges and universities, with stints at Kent State University in Ohio, Edmond State University in Oklahoma, and Edinboro State University in Pennsylvania, where she finished up her teaching degree in comprehensive social studies. She completed her master's degree in counselor education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and her doctorate in educational administration and leadership at Pennsylvania State University.

She has risen up the education ranks from teacher, principal, administrator, assistant and deputy superintendent, and even served from 1983 to 1986 as the secretary of education for Pennsylvania. When Smith arrived in Florida (her husband is a Key West native and is retired from the Aviation Division of the Pennsylvania State Police), she initially worked for several years as a deputy superintendent in Monroe County.

Six years ago, the couple talked about relocating to another part of Florida. The couple has two grown sons. Smith applied for and was successful in getting the Volusia position. And then the economy tanked.

Shannon Hay, president of the Volusia County Council of PTAs, says she appreciated that Smith educated parents about the budget "months before" surrounding counties began addressing the problem of last year's budget cuts.

"She was brave and honest in letting parents know exactly how cuts will affect their children, while other counties made vague statements, avoiding talk about the tough decisions," says Hay, adding that Smith's honesty and willingness to collaborate is why over 20,000 volunteers have worked 752,000 hours supporting Smith's vision and why 96 percent (a 14 percent increase) of the district's schools now have PTAs. While Smith doesn't expect volunteers to replace teachers, flanking them with caring, involved parents has done no harm and is something she strongly encourages. PTA membership has increased by 22 percent to 1,736 members, a gain that Hay attributes to Smith's respect for parents.

Perhaps a result of all this collaboration under Smith's leadership is her district's "A" grade and a "High Performing District" label for two consecutive years, earned through high achievement on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. "I am proud of that," says Smith. "We work really hard on that."

A high grade affords the district greater flexibility in maneuvering around legislative regulations such as those that dictate when the school year must begin. The district has also been recognized as one of only three charter districts in the state. This allows Volusia latitude in getting students to proficiency, says Smith.

Another accomplishment: Volusia enjoys districtwide accreditation, the first district in Florida and third in the nation to undergo the rigorous process. The intent of earning accreditation on a district level is to show continuous quality improvement verified through a third-party process. (Volusia is accredited through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.)

"Superintendents can't work in isolation," says Smith. "I'm very people-oriented and have worked with people to bring about change, to work toward common goals. You need your community members, governmental officials—and not only in your own immediate district—but you really have to expand past that to get certain goals accomplished for a student."

Victor Rivero is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.


Advertisement