Leadership series: Six-figure teacher salaries? Yes, in this superintendent’s district

When Superintendent Scott Muri took the helm at Ector County ISD in 2019, the district had an 18% teacher vacancy rate and was one of the lowest-performing districts in the state. Now, he says, "We can fly."

He had anticipated becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon until one experience forever changed the trajectory of his life.

Dr. Scott Muri, superintendent of Ector County Independent School District in Texas, leads one of the most innovative and transformative districts in the state, a journey he never thought he would embark on.

“One of the courses I took my freshman year in college was a seminar class and we were required to visit a teacher’s classroom at a local school,” he says. “I was matched with a seventh-grade gifted and talented teacher and I had to spend three hours a week in her classroom basically observing her. And that did it for me. I wanted to be her, so here I am. She was the inspiration.”

Muri arrived in Ector County ISD in 2019, and at the time it was among the lowest-performing districts in the state. The district, which serves around 33,500 students, 65% of whom live in poverty, had an 18% vacancy rate.

He set out to look, listen and learn from students and staff to better understand the challenges and opportunities that existed in the district. It was apparent to him that students were struggling academically, but his focus quickly became understanding why.

“The primary reason was the organization itself,” he says. “We were not staffed appropriately and we didn’t have human capital. On the first day of school in 2019, 356 teachers were not physically present. And we maintained an 18% vacancy rate that whole school year.”

Fortunately, that is no longer the case today. Muri’s strategic initiatives were recently showcased in a report titled, “Exploring New Frontiers For K-12 Systems Transformation.” UVA’s Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) details real innovation efforts and leadership throughout the report that is taking place in districts across the country to inspire and drive further transformation, and Ector County ISD was one of the several model districts featured in the report.

Putting in the work

Upon his arrival to the district, they immediately began investing heavily in human capital.

“Everything from reorganizing our entire human capital department to thinking about all of the different investments that we needed to make to recruit, attract and retain the very best talent that we could for the students that we serve,” he says. “Human capital has been a huge part of our reorganization.”

He says there were several other inequities within the district that became clear upon evaluation, such as an inadequate pre-K program, insufficient meals for students, access to the internet and devices and a curriculum that wasn’t so rigorous. Now, all of those needs are being met, including free breakfast and lunch for every kid in the district regardless of financial status.

“The elements that help schools do their work effectively and efficiently were not in place,” he says. “We’ve spent a lot of energy putting those pieces in place.”

The final, and perhaps most important, area he sought to address was student learning. He says it’s crucial that students have the tools and resources necessary to learn in 2023, whether it’s through instructional technology or personalized learning strategies.

“The level of rigor is at a higher place than it was just three years ago because of the tools and resources that kids and teachers have access to,” he explains. “We have healthy professional learning communities. Our teachers talk to each other regularly. We have robust data systems and comprehensive assessments that our teachers use to gather information about kids and that informs the work that they do for students. Learning looks different today from what it looked like before.”

Bolstering the workforce

If you were to sit down with Dr. Muri, you would understand that he cares deeply about teacher effectiveness and how it impacts student outcomes.

“It’s the primary driver of student success,” he says. “We had kids who didn’t have a certified teacher for years. Not only did kids not have a teacher ‘today,’ but they spent their kindergarten, first- and second-grade years never having a teacher. I had substitute teachers year after year after year. And that’s horrific for learning, but that is not the case today. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy just thinking differently about human capital.”

But it’s not as easy as finding and hiring excellent teachers, he adds. To him, it’s all about cultivating and developing the teacher workforce within the district.

“Are we cultivating our students to become teachers,” he asks. “Are we developing the members of our community who should be our teachers? And the answer to that was no, we were not doing that effectively.”

Today, they’re doing exactly that. His district is one of three across the entire state that has the ability to license certified teachers. It also has students graduating from high school with an associate’s degree in education, and funds and individually coaches teachers to earn national board certification.

One of the most impactful strategic initiatives that have allowed his district to flourish with teachers is raising teacher pay, an issue that continues to plague many districts across the country.

“We’re the highest-paying district in the region,” he says. “We have teachers that have the ability to earn over $100,000 a year in our district. We actually have teachers that make more than administrators today, which as an administrator makes me smile greatly. When I hear an administrator say, ‘I need to leave administration to become a teacher so I can make more money,’ that makes me smile because that’s the way it should be.”

Do what you can’t

When he first arrived in 2019, he shared a Samsung commercial with his staff that depicts an ostrich trying its best to fly, but time and time again it fails. But eventually, it takes flight, and it’s unstoppable. From that commercial came the hashtag #DoWhatYouCant. And for Muri and his district, that’s been their framework for success.

“We used that theme in our very first year because there was a whole lot of, ‘We can’t do that. We can’t find enough teachers. Our kids can’t. We can’t. Our community can’t.’ The challenge that we issued ourselves was: We are going to do what we can’t. And so here we are three-and-a-half years later and we’re a B-rated district in Texas for the first time ever. We now have a 1% teacher vacancy rate. We’ve overcome a lot of the can’t’s and we’ve proven that we can, and we must continue to do that. But that hashtag, ‘do what you can’t’, has really challenged us today. I’m proud of our district because we can fly, and we’ve proven that we can.”

As for 2023 and beyond, his priorities are quite simple: to stay laser-focused on their strategic plan and to seek out new and innovative opportunities.

“A continued area of focus will be the evolution of our organization to make sure that we are always growing, improving and developing,” he says. “And ultimately, we want every kid that we serve to become highly successful. Until that happens, we should continue to evolve.”

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Micah Ward
Micah Wardhttps://districtadministration.com
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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