Tech savvy helps supes land jobs

As computers and the internet become increasingly important to both the business and instructional practices of school districts, a growing number of school boards are making an understanding of technology and how it can be used to enhance school operations a key factor in their search for a new superintendent.

In Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, the local school board last month hired Phillip J. Ertl, district administrator for the state’s Kiel Area School District, as its new superintendent for next year. At Kiel, Ertl oversaw the operation of a district with 180 employees and a $13 million budget–reportedly a fraction of the nearly $70 million budget he will oversee in Wauwatosa.

But board members were impressed with a number of aspects to Ertl’s candidacy, not the least of which was his remarkable technology resume: He was awarded the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) 2005 President’s Technology Award, has written and spoken about “paperless” board meetings, and his district recently was recognized as the fourth-best school district nationwide for its school board’s use of information technology by the National School Boards Association (NSBA).

Lois Weber, a member of the Wauwatosa school board, said Ertl’s technology know-how was certainly a factor in the board’s decision.

“There were specific [qualities] that we were looking at. Technology was one of them, and he is very savvy in that area,” Weber said. “That was a plus for us, because that’s something we need to provide for our young people if they’re going to be successful in the future.”

Weber added: “I was also interested in how he was approaching technology for those who would not be comfortable with it–the faculty. We looked at how he would work to make our faculty comfortable with the use of technology. He was willing to make efforts to make people comfortable, but he was also respectful of those who were going to take a little longer to become comfortable with it.”

Weber said board members also were looking for someone “who would come in and review the central office and possibly restructure how things are done–and technology plays a major role in that. In Wauwatosa, I think we have a good system going, but a new person needs to come in and assess that and see where it’s lacking.”

Ertl used technology to change the way the board interacts with the community and his administration in Kiel, which he will be leaving in July. Board members there stopped receiving board “packets,” hard copies of information for their meetings, and instead were issued laptops to use in tandem with materials posted on the internet to save money and streamline communications among members. Ertl also used technology to create a virtual charter school with partnerships between Kiel and other districts around the state and to aid in student assessment.

Ertl said his district’s use of technology spoke to his overall leadership abilities.

“I got people to rally ’round the effective use of technology here [at Kiel],” he said. “That’s pretty much how I presented it with [the] Wauwatosa [board].”

Ertl said he thinks the effective use of technology in school districts is “imperative.” “People have to move beyond thinking, ‘We’ve got an eMail box here on the desk,’ to understand how technology is improving student learning, making it more powerful,” he said. “I always say technology is not a tool anymore, it’s an environment. It’s not an addition to what we do, it should be an integral part.”

Jim Rickabaugh, who works with Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates, the organization that led the search for Wauwatosa’s latest chief executive, said he believes Ertl’s example illustrates the growing importance of technology leadership in the hiring process for new superintendents.

“I think the absence of … [a] vision for technology is increasingly becoming a deficit that will have to be overcome,” Rickabaugh said. “I think, for school leaders who don’t have a sense of technology, that … is becoming a problem.”

“It’s a trend,” agreed Ron Barnes, a former superintendent, associate professor, and executive director of the Indiana Public School/University Partnership at Indiana University. Barns also takes part in about 20 superintendent searches annually on behalf of the Bickert Group, of which he is a partner.

“As we do leadership profiles, it comes up more often than [not] that [school districts] want folks [who] know technology,” Barnes said.

Barnes added that districts don’t necessarily want IT “geeks.” “But somewhere down the way, they want someone who can use and understand technology, because districts have put a lot of money into it,” he said.

“Superintendents need to understand how technology interfaces with learning,” Barnes added. “That’s the tough part. Now, bring the computer into the classroom, beyond its being a research instrument, [and] effective superintendents need to know how it integrates into the curriculum. People who know that are going to do well.”

Patrick Russo implemented successful technology initiatives in North Carolina and Georgia before taking the superintendency of the Hampton City Schools in Virginia in 2004. He agreed with Ertl’s assertion that the pedagogical environment has undergone a dramatic shift in terms of the way students and educators use technology.

“I think I’m no different than many of my colleagues today,” Russo said. “We all realize that this particular area [technology] is only going to continue to grow and be part of the next phase of the education process for students and teachers. The schools of tomorrow will very much be a technological environment. The successful school [system] will be the one that has committed to [this vision].”

Vickie Markavitch has been the superintendent of the Oakland, Mich., Intermediate School District (ISD) regional offices for seven months.

“I think this board would have had a very hard time hiring a superintendent who was not comfortable with technology, not a user of technology in [his or her] own work habits and in the professional arena,” Markavitch said.

Markavitch said she uses technology “very heavily” throughout the course of her job. “eMail, internet, data analysis, different metrics–the biggest being all the metrics that feed into student performance data–budget, finance, following trends, forecasting … I use it for all of those things,” she said.

Oakland ISD is already making technological leaps under Markavitch’s leadership.

“We’re actually doing two big things here,” she said. “We’ve totally revamped our business and human-resources software. We’ve gotten it more up to speed and made it easier to implement. Local [educational] agencies buy those services from us. We’re going to be able to make student data available for $10 per student as opposed to $18. That [service is] probably going to double in our districts … within this year.”

She added, “We’re also developing a warehouse to store student-performance data. We’re developing an assessment system to analyze all those data in any kind of aggregated or disaggregated fashion.”

Education “is not an arena that a person can enter and not be able to use the technology at hand,” Markavitch concluded. “It is definitely a needed skill, and [a lack of understanding about technology] would definitely knock a person out of a superintendency race today.”

Charlie Chard has spent 20 years on the board of education for the Lamphere School District, which falls under the regional jurisdiction of Markovitch’s Oakland ISD.

“Young kids come into school and are tech savvy right away,” Chard said. “A superintendent is the person who’s got to know what’s going on in the district. If the superintendent doesn’t have any technology vision, [he or she] might put it on the back burner. That’s the key: having enough experience and exposure to say what you know and admit what you don’t know.”

Though the current educational environment might be driving a trend in hiring tech-savvy superintendents, many say the effective use of technology is not the leading skill required by districts.

“In the last three or four years, more and more boards have asked for superintendents who not only understand but appreciate the use of technology,” said Ken Underwood, senior partner and former president of Harold Webb Associates, an organization that consults with school systems on hiring superintendents. “The use of technology in schools … keeps getting more and more sophisticated. Consequently, boards are saying that one of the things they expect in their next superintendent is that he or she be technology proficient.”

But “maybe this would be the best way to state it: Boards ask for a number of different skills–and they usually ask for all of them,” Underwood said. “Normally, they don’t get everything they ask for. You won’t find many people who walk on water. It’s a compromise. Everything else being equal, if this person is effective in terms of technology … he or she has got a step up from those who do not have that.”

Rickabaugh agreed that a superintendent’s technological accomplishments and vision “probably don’t yet rise to the level of being the sort of seminal separator, if you will.” But “it’s increasingly becoming something that boards are asking about and looking for within the terms of a [search] profile,” he concluded.


Wauwatosa School District

Kiel Area School District

American Association of School Administrators

National School Boards Association

Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates

Indiana Public School/University Partnership

Hampton City Schools

Oakland ISD

Harold Webb Associates

eSchool News Staff

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