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Leadership Insights

District Office Leaders: Whose Schedule Runs Your Schools?

By Terry Wilhelm March 3, 2015

In the 1970s, the joke was that most decisions about how a school was run were based on the bus schedules and the custodial schedules. Early in my career, I visited a school where the desks were bolted to the floor. This made cooperative learning difficult since the classrooms were not allotted extra (loose) chairs. But, we were told, “It sure makes it easy for our custodian to complete his nightly schedule!”

Do school building improvements require students to study through jackhammers?

Sometimes I wonder how much things have really changed. One principal whose school was undergoing construction to expand one wing described his frustration over the jackhammering during school hours that made teaching and learning next to impossible.

When he called the district, hoping to have the jackhammering rescheduled for after the afternoon dismissal, he learned that “the construction company has a schedule to meet, and they need to do what they need to do.” Jackhammer racket is extreme, but what about the routine racket, such as district lawnmowers and other landscape maintenance equipment?

The impact of turning away a district maintenance worker during class

When I was a principal, one of my teachers came to me one morning and reported that she had just sent away a district maintenance worker who had arrived to begin extensive repairs of some of her classroom light fixtures. My heart sank.

In good conscience, I could not argue with her position, but I also knew the work order, which we’d requested at least six months earlier, would be thrown away once the rejected maintenance worker got back to the shop. This was not the official district procedure, of course, but I knew from shop insiders that this was the reality. A new work order might be tossed as well.

Contending with warring operations and maintenance departments

Along the same lines, a colleague of mine learned that if her school had a job requiring collaboration between the maintenance and operations departments, it simply could not be done. In that district, the heads of these two departments — located across town from each other — had not been on speaking terms for years. Not even the assistant superintendent under whom they both worked, could bring the two together to complete a job.

Are bus schedules set to accommodate optimum student learning, or are principals informed of the bus schedules (and lunch truck schedule) and expected to do their best to design a school schedule that maximizes learning?

When determining maintenance schedules, does learning have a dollar value?

Students are the losers in all the aforementioned situations. Yet some districts have decided that traditions can be changed. I have driven by schools on Saturdays and been shocked to see district maintenance employees hard at work with their ear-splitting equipment, just as if it was a school day. I’ve seen private construction companies working at schools on Saturdays — and Sundays!

Can this kind of thinking be extended to bus schedules? Lunch truck schedules? Recalcitrant maintenance and operations workers and their department heads? Are whatever the increased fiscal costs worth it? Does learning have a dollar value?

While these questions may appear facetious, their answers are complex and potentially unpopular with some of those who hold most dear the traditional ways of operating. Grappling with them is, in my experience, a mark of courage and true leadership. It is the mark of district leaders who weigh as many decisions as possible against the standard of maximizing learning for all students.

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