Superintendent Scott Bailey goes not-so-undercover

Scott Bailey draws on farming background and acting chops to drive district success
By: | Issue: September, 2019
August 19, 2019
Desert Sands USD Superintendent Scott Bailey discusses a coding and robotics assignment with students in the hallway of Richard R. Oliphant Elementary School, which has a K-5 computer science program.Desert Sands USD Superintendent Scott Bailey discusses a coding and robotics assignment with students in the hallway of Richard R. Oliphant Elementary School, which has a K-5 computer science program.

LA QUINTA, Calif.—The video follows a rumpled, suspicious-looking over-the-hill intern as he reports to Desert Sands USD’s security office after a shift. This eager gentleman, who calls himself Presley, doesn’t seem too upset about his cheeks, bloodied from a low-speed bicycle mishap he experienced while patrolling the large Southern California district.

The camera then zooms in on the security supervisor, who glares skeptically at Presley’s tacky 1950s pompadour, oversized sunglasses and scraggly sideburns. In block letters—reminiscent of TV cop-show ransom notes—his T-shirt reads “INSECURITY.”

At least Presley didn’t lose his orange safety vest, right? Well, he might not be cut out for a career in school safety. But education does have a place for his alter ego. In the video’s big reveal, Presley whips off the pompadour and the shades—and to no one’s surprise, he’s really district Superintendent Scott Bailey!

‘The joke’s on me’

Tricking district employees is not part of Bailey’s leadership philosophy. Everyone is in on the video’s joke anyway. The episode described above is the third in a student-produced series called “Not-So-Undercover Sup,” in which Bailey, disguised poorly, pretends to be an intern to highlight the work of unheralded staff members.

Over the past two years, he has also gone undercover in the district’s central nutrition services facility, which produces 24,000 meals per day, and in the transportation department, where he failed the bus-driving test with flying colors—or flying traffic cones.

“The joke’s on me, too—that I’m willing to put myself in these positions—and it humanizes the position of superintendent,” says Bailey, who became Desert Sands USD’s leader in 2017 after spending many years as an administrator and teacher in Nevada’s Washoe County and Clark County school districts.

“And the collateral benefit is that we’ve involved students in the filming,” he adds. “They direct the videos. They do wardrobe and makeup. They do the whole thing.”

Making himself highly accessible—to students, staff and the community—is essential for Bailey in leading a district that covers seven different cities south of Palm Springs. With such an outgoing attitude, you might think Bailey grew up amid the sun-dazzled star power of Southern California’s entertainment industry.

Actually, the classic Hollywood film that depicts his childhood most accurately might be The Wizard of Oz because he grew up on his family’s farm in southeastern Kansas. By his senior year in high school, he was farming 1,200 acres by himself.

“On the farm, you’re constantly nurturing seeds to maturity so you have a bountiful harvest, and oftentimes, you’re doing it through adversity—the weather, climate, price,” he says. “I think we do the same in education.” Agricultural work also delivered life lessons about collaboration and networking—such as looking to more experienced, neighbor farmers (or superintendents, these days) for help solving common problems.

Watch DATV: Superintendent Scott Bailey leads in plain sight

Back then though, the family expectation was for Bailey to eventually take over the farm. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had made that choice, and Bailey was the oldest son—but he was also a first-generation college student.

He’d enrolled at the local community college, where, he says, a professor opened his eyes to the equalizing force of education and its potential to expand horizons. Bailey also got a surprise boost from his grandfather, who was diagnosed with cancer around the time the younger man was thinking of transferring to Pittsburg State University in Kansas to complete his degree.

“I’ll never forget; he was sitting in a chair and overlooking my cattle as they grazed in a large field,” he says. “I went out and asked him for permission to leave the farm. He turned to me and said, ‘You know, I always wanted your dad to go to college. I’m glad you’re going to college.’”

‘Best of times, worst of times’

Bailey eventually earned his master’s degree in school supervision and evaluation, and took a job teaching third grade in Joplin, Missouri. Two years later, in 1992, leaders at the expanding Clark County School District in Las Vegas recruited him as a reading specialist. He soon became a principal and spent most of the next 25 years in the district.

The district was growing so fast that the leaders had to build several new schools each year, while Bailey and his building teams had to remake class lists almost every weekend. He also took advantage of some of the hospitality expertise in the city by getting acquainted with a vice president at MGM Resorts International and getting to know the inner workings of some of the company’s properties.

He used MGM’s emergency planning and robust employee recognition programs as models for his schools. “And the third thing I pulled out from MGM was customer service,” he says. “When we opened a brand-new school, as principal, I would stand in the drop-off zone, open car doors, and greet students and parents.”

In 2009, leaders of another large Nevada district, Washoe County Public Schools, recruited Bailey, and he was promoted quickly through the central office. He became the chief academic officer just in time to work on the contentious implementation of the Common Core standards.

“It was a ‘best of times, worst of times’ challenge,” he says of the district’s push to quickly ramp up professional development and adjust to more rigorous Smarter Balanced assessments. He also worked to rally the entire school community behind the new standards. “We had some really brave teachers who were willing to take some risks,” he says.

Being the CAO made it easier for him to find a district he could lead. “People would expect the CAO to look for the next opportunity,” he says. “If you are a seated superintendent, it’s hard to look for the next opportunity without burning some bridges.”

Tackling a digital divide

Bailey began his tenure at Desert Sands USD in April 2017 with a “light rudder.” “It’s always better to come in and not change things too fast,” he says. “You can always make things better, but you don’t have to tear them apart to do it.”

The district was then in the midst of an extensive tech integration project, and one major change Bailey did make—and relatively quickly—was to build Desert Sands’ Long Term Evolution network for about $500,000. “There were definitely concerns that we couldn’t send devices home with students at night, knowing some of them didn’t have internet access,” he says. “That would only aid and abet the digital divide.”

Bailey and his team—particularly Kelly May-Vollmar, the district’s chief innovation and information officer—worked as part of a public-private partnership to retrofit seven microwave towers to fill in broadband holes in Desert Sands’ 752-square-mile attendance zone. Students can now bring home a Mi-Fi mobile hot spot device with their Chromebooks to connect to the service, which costs about $50,000 per year to operate.

Desert Sands USD Superintendent Scott Bailey says he relieves the stress of leadership by sitting down and talking with young students. They “take you back to why you’re here, to what it’s all about.”

Desert Sands USD Superintendent Scott Bailey says he relieves the stress of leadership by sitting down and talking with young students. They “take you back to why you’re here, to what it’s all about.”

In developing his other new initiatives, Bailey has followed a marketing concept known as “the purple cow,” which encourages an organization to come up with programs that stand out. For example, Bailey’s biannual Goldfish Bowl innovation contest was recognized by DA’s Districts of Distinction program last month. A take on ABC’s Shark Tank, Bailey’s judges divide $4,000 among five groups of finalists who have developed everything from classroom emergency kits to an outdoor makerspace to tech upgrades for a career and technical education fashion program.

Like many K-12 leaders, Bailey has increasingly focused on students’ mental health. Through PD, he has implemented Multi-Tiered System of Supports so all educators and staff know how to provide the appropriate support to students in distress. In addition, he has expanded the counseling staff so each building has a dedicated counselor.

Bailey also finds time to relax during the school day. “One way I relieve anxiety is by sitting on the floor and conversing with kindergartners,” he says. “You could be having the worst day and it turns into the best through a quick, five-minute conversation. The kindergartners take you back to why you’re here, to what it’s all about.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.

Desert Sands USD by the numbers:

  • Schools: 34
  • Students: Approximately 28,500
  • Employees: 2,700
  • Per-child expenditure: $11,442
  • Annual budget: $327 million
  • Students on free/reduced-price lunch: 66%
  • English language learners: 23%
  • Graduation rate: 92%
  • Teacher retention rate: 98%
  • Attendance zone: 752 square miles

Superintendent Scott Bailey’s favorite things:

  • Teacher: Coach Jim Woods
  • Childhood aspiration: To be like my dad
  • Pastime/hobby: Sunday morning “mountain carving” in a sports car
  • Travel destination: Sand, sun and water
  • Food: A meat-and-potatoes kind of guy
  • Dessert: Anything lemon
  • Book: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (from childhood and as an educator)
  • Music/song: Coldplay’s “Yellow”
  • Sports/recreation: The backyard gym—daily!
  • Heroes/sheroes: Educators
  • Quote: “As educators, we need to teach kids the way they want to learn—not necessarily how we were taught.”