A superintendent’s job is complex; we operate our districts like CEOs running a business. But unlike a company, we don’t collect a fee for service. Superintendents at the beginning of this school year all faced the same challenge: how to pay for initiatives that benefit students in a budget that’s pretty much allocated to other things. When I coach superintendents, they always tell me their biggest gap is related to finance and budgeting. The triangle of success can help.
Consider the following:
- Districts spend more than 80% of their budgets on people for salaries and benefits. The more students you enroll, the more teachers you’ll need to hire and the more support services you’ll need to support them.
- Your community’s local tax dollars are finite. And your state only gives you so many dollars per student based on a formula.
- Districts receive some earmarked federal funds, such as Title I, dedicated to supporting students from low-income families and areas.
- Occasionally you’ll get external funds from philanthropic endeavors, but that’s usually minor.
- About 3% of district budgets are allocated toward positions that have been left vacant. So, that money is sitting in an account waiting to be spent.
You also must be able to quickly adjust your budget if you have changes in enrollment or funding formulas.
If you really want a product or service, you can afford it. It just takes a lot of courage to let go of something that’s not working. But first, you need to lay a solid foundation to earn the trust of your educators, staff, school board and community.
Introducing the triangle of success
I learned about the triangle of success in my third superintendency when a mentor told me about it. The basic premise of the triangle of success is that, as the superintendent, you have students you’re responsible for, and they’re in the middle of the triangle. Your job is to support them by nurturing each of the other parts of the triangle.
- At the top of the triangle is your school board — your bosses. You’re not their boss. They’re elected officials; some are amateur politicians and weren’t trained as you were taught. They are diverse. Sometimes they don’t like each other, but they are your bosses, and you must find a way to work with your school board. I could do that for 27 years because I figured out how important that was after I struggled a couple of times.
- At one corner of the triangle’s base is your staff. You need your team. You can’t do this job alone. You have your direct reports and your field generals — your principals — that you depend on so much. But you also have your custodians, hourly workers and all the people who help make the big machine run. Typically, the district is the first- or second-largest employer in the community. It’s critical to invest in your people.
- At the other corner of the triangle of success is your community, made up of local taxpayers. They help you fund the schools. People in your community care deeply about their two most prized possessions — their kids and money — and you manage both. You also have other high-profile people in your community, like your mayor and your Chamber of Commerce and community activists. You should work on building relationships in this corner a lot.
Superintendents can achieve great success when they’ve got all three parts of the triangle going in the same direction. But you must spend time strategically developing relationships in all three parts of the triangle.
If your board loves you and your staff loves you, but your community doesn’t, you only have two parts of the triangle. If the community votes out a couple of board members in an election and changes the board’s composition, you could be down to only one part of the triangle. At that point, all you can do is survive from paycheck to paycheck. You’d better start looking for a new job, because it’s over — you just don’t know it yet.
Putting the triangle into practice
Politics has become a dirty word, and justifiably so because of how ugly the climate has become. In your district, politics is about who has the power and who makes the connections to distribute the resources. As CEO of your district, it’s your job to get to know the people in each part of the triangle. There are informal leaders in every aspect of the triangle, and it’s not always the person holding the most prominent title.
When I served as superintendent, I followed a deliberate scheduling model that a mentor taught me. I color-coded my calendar to allocate the time I planned to spend with the board, staff and community.
- I visited each of my schools every Wednesday for 27 years. I would go in and say hello to the secretary and custodian. I would take a selfie with a food service worker. I would walk the whole building with the principal. I would be there looking for good things and wanted them to see me doing that.
- Monday was a staff day, where I would meet with my direct reports.
- Thursdays were school board meeting days.
- Tuesdays and Fridays were my community days.
It’s also critical to put the right protocols into play to effectively communicate with each of these groups so that if something bad happens, they don’t hear about it at the grocery store, church or a baseball game. If it’s really, really bad news, I would call board members directly.
Of course, you need to be able to adjust your schedule and communications accordingly. But if you have days set aside to meet with each of the constituencies in your triangle of success regularly, it becomes part of your routine, and it’s very strategic.
Most importantly, building a triangle of success helps you establish trust. If you build trust over time and follow these protocols and routines, people will forgive you if you make a little mistake because they know you have systems in place to inform them so they can do their jobs.
Michael Hinojosa, Ed.D., spent more than 27 years as superintendent/CEO of six public education systems, including Dallas Independent School District and the Cobb County School District in suburban Atlanta, Ga. He retired from the Dallas ISD in 2022 and now serves as a Kami Advisory Group member.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.