Eskildson: an open letter to Scottsdale Schools leadership

Pupil achievement within America’s public schools has stagnated for at least four decades, despite a near tripling of inflation-adjusted, per-pupil funding.

Loyd Eskildson

Loyd Eskildson

During this same period, our performance versus other nations has declined to middle-of-the-pack performance, especially in mathematics — despite spending more/pupil than any other developed nation.
Dissatisfaction and frustration with this sea-to-sea mediocrity has led to a several “outside the box” innovations, the most notable being vouchers, open enrollment, and charters.

These innovations, in turn, have led to thousands of parents within SUSD boundaries withdrawing their children — emptying large segments of even new or newly renovated/rebuilt buildings and annually costing the district tens of millions in lost revenues that could have been used to better incentivize staff and add programs/staff.

Early this year you were hired to lead SUSD in a new direction — a direction that would not only reduce expected additional losses during fiscal year 2016-17 from BASIS and other charter expansions, but also eventually refill many of those empty classrooms and regain a major portion of those millions in lost revenues.

What has been accomplished to date?

I’m aware of a lot of confident talk, vague promises, and a few scatter-shot actions such as adding a few elementary school language and gifted teachers. These will not likely significantly improve pupil achievement or parental satisfaction versus competitors.

How many parents have “added elementary-school language instruction” at or near the top of their priorities?
BASIS, Great Hearts, and other successful charters provide high parental satisfaction because they have tailored their human resources and other management practices to do so. Matching their accomplishments cannot be accomplished with confident talk, vague promises, scatter-shot actions, and mostly more of the same.

Careful, competent change leadership is required.

SUSD needs a change in leadership that begins with repeatedly reminding SUSD’s communities why significant change is needed, sharing/selling an credible and inspiring vision for SUSD’s parents, pupils, and personnel, and followed by a confidence-building plan for making it happen.

A successful confidence-building plan for making the vision happen, in turn, requires first setting a few credible, significant, specific pupil-achievement improvement goals for the district, deploying them throughout the district down to each classroom, assigning accountability at all levels for their achievement, and aligning significant rewards with their accomplishment.

It also requires revising board meetings so that a large portion of each meeting is henceforth devoted to reviewing interim progress reports and taking corrective action. And finally, given SUSD’s decade-plus of non-competitiveness, it also will require replacing a number of upper-level personnel and restructuring responsibilities — eg. decentralization to provide much more authority to principals, and benchmarking to significantly reduce overheads.

My understanding is that none of the preceding have been accomplished or even undertaken. Apologists excuse this, saying “It takes a long time to execute a turnaround within a large organization.”

My observations, however, are that new CEOs generally have about 90 days or so to make significant progress on the preceding, and that some even accomplish the entire list within that timeframe.

Managements slow to accomplish significant outcome improvement undermine staff/customer confidence and strengthen naysayers.

Successful leaders also build confidence within their organizations through repeatedly communicating and selling/motivating their transformation plan. That obviously has not occurred within SUSD.
Successful leaders also focus their organizations on a few key issues with maximum impact on improving outcomes. A $229 million building renovation and renovation plan would become a major and probably fatal diversion from accomplishing what parents really want.

How many parents have removed their children from SUSD citing “unsatisfactory facilities” as their rationale? Yes, some significant repairs/renovations are essential, but $229 million worth — involving major disruptions at every elementary campus?

Making this bond issue a priority creates an obvious mockery of any SUSD talk about “focus on customer satisfaction.”

BASIS, Great Hearts and others are closely watching what you do and don’t do. They will continue to bleed SUSD as long as they can make money doing so.

Editor’s note: Mr. Eskildson is a resident of Scottsdale

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