The Indiana 2014 Superintendent of the Year is Dr. Tom Little.
Dr. Thomas J. Little Jr., superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Perry Township, was selected the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents 2014 District V Superintendent of the Year. Dr. Little was then selected as the Indiana Superintendent of the Year from the field of eight IAPSS District Superintendents.
District winners are selected by other superintendents in their district who consider the qualifications and accomplishments of area colleagues and their instructional leadership in a time of limited financial resources.
Perry Township has more than 14,000 students and 1,800 staff members in 18 schools.
On Little’s first day as Perry Township superintendent in 2008, he was presented with the news that the district was overspending its budget by $2 million a year, the cash balance would be depleted in two years, and the district faced an additional $9 million shortfall in the next eight years due to the loss of desegregation funding.
Said Little: “The first step was to educate and inform our board, staff and community of the fact we had a financial issue we did not create, but it was our challenge to address. Our approach was not to focus on cutting $2 million of staff and programs, but to focus on how we would spend our then-$96 million operating budget to serve the needs of 14,000 children. Literally overnight, we had permission to rebuild the district from the ground up.”
He formed a leadership group of board members, administrators and teachers to develop recommendations, which included eliminating programs with a high cost-to-student benefit and expanding advanced placement (AP) and online offerings.
The budget was balanced within two years.
At the same time, the district had a desperate need to improve and repair facilities. Another work group, including parents and community members, studied the issue and recommended a referendum to seek additional funding. Although the initial referendum request failed, two referendums later passed, generating additional revenue for operations and facility improvements.
The district now has an operating cash balance of $7 million and a 92.2 percent graduation rate
Little is a past president of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents and is active in the Perry Township community. He was formerly superintendent in Kokomo-Center Schools and Jay School Corp. and an administrator in Carmel Clay Schools, the MSD of Pike Township and West Central School Corp.
Little earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Butler University, and a specialist degree in school administration and an Ed.D. from Indiana University.
Each District Superintendent of the Year was asked to respond to several questions and for the Indiana Superintendent of the Year a few additional questions were asked.
The following are Dr. Little responses:
District Supt. of the Year Interview Questions
What program(s) or activities in your school district that focus on improving student learning do you feel are the most successful?
Implementing the TAP evaluation tool has been very successful in improving student learning in Perry Township Schools. The evaluation process is a key component in assuring that Perry Township is providing this rich and rigorous educational program consistently. This district embraced this teacher evaluation tool. Without a doubt the new evaluation system has markedly improved the level of instruction in our classrooms and has everyone focused on providing the highest quality of educational experiences for our students.
In 2011, passing both a facility and general fund referenda not only preserved the educational system that was already in place but also provided the funds for the much needed repairs and upgrades to our existing facilities.
In addition, due to the generosity of Ray Skillman, Perry Stadium was renovated last summer. This $900,000 dollar donation provided the funds to install artificial turf on a football field that is used by both of our high schools. This stadium now compares to fields in nearby school districts but with the luxury of having no tax dollars used for the project! This raised school spirit and pride in the district! We realize that while the academic program is our number one priority, students who are successful in life not only attain good grades but they also are involved in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities during their educational experience.
What have been your most significant challenges as a supt. and how have you dealt with them?
My most significant challenges as a superintendent have involved the budget, program reductions, moral, a dysfunctional school board, district reputation and enrollment growth, especially with our EL students.
Budget and Program Reductions: When I began as the superintendent for Perry Township Schools, the Chief Financial Officer broke the news to me that the district was over spending its budget by $2 million each year; in two years the cash balance would be zero. In addition, we were facing a $9 million dollar shortfall in the subsequent eight years due to the loss of desegregation funding. No plans were in place to address these shortfalls.
This issue would take a planned, methodical, and strategic approach to address the funding crisis and still protect the fundamental academic program. We concentrated on how to spend $96 million dollars effectively to serve the needs of over 14,000 children.
This did cause some pain, but reducing funding by $2 million in one year convinced the school community we carry out our plans. No programs were untouchable, no matter how politically entrenched. If the program did not support the mission and educational goals of the district, then it had no place on our roster. The budget was balanced within two years with less than a one percent cash balance on the books. Today, we have an operating cash balance of over $7 million dollars.
At the same time we were addressing our operational funding needs, our facilities were desperately in need of improvement. We lacked the finances to address 50-year-old boilers, leaking roofs, threadbare carpets, HVAC systems that left classrooms either too hot or too cold and pools that were leaking profusely. In 2011, the district passed both a facility and general fund referendum.
We continue to monitor program expenditures and focus on strong, challenging academic programs and well-maintained facilities.
Moral and Dysfunctional School Board: As the newly appointed superintendent in 2008, I faced a fractured board, distrustful community members, embarrassed employees reeling from the negative press, and antagonistic board meetings that were packed with disgruntled patrons. This middle class, very stable, and quiet school district had erupted into a divided argumentative school community on the heels of the firing of the current superintendent. There was a dramatic need to instill pride and a semblance of order in this district. Board training and transparent communication was needed. I engaged business and civic leaders in this Southside Indianapolis community to join me in rebuilding Perry Schools from the ground up.
Our administrative council now serves as the forum for setting short-term goals, making staff assignments for specific actions and evaluating progress toward reaching long-term ones. It took a while to establish a rapport with the administrative cabinet. Now cabinet members feel free to openly debate issues, because they have learned we respect each other’s opinions.
We communicate with our publics through a weekly local newspaper column, quarterly newsletters, public/private meetings and an annual report. The district website, my blog, school newsletters Blackboard Connect and social media are also means of communication that are utilized within the district. I am proud of the solid relationships that I have with our students, staff members, families, community and media built based on mutual trust and respect.
We were truly honored when the Indiana School Boards Association asked us to present a workshop on how to turn a school district around in five years. Our board members are proud of this accomplishment. Pride is back in Perry Township!
Enrollment growth: In the past six years, we evolved from a district in 2007 with a 5.3% EL representation to our current EL student population of 23.5%. This number continues to grow.
There are challenges to this cultural shift but also opportunities. Our task is to place these children in a grade that is appropriate for their age. The next step is to address the language deficiencies. Following one year of instruction, the students are expected to take standardized math tests in English.
What adjustments were made to address this cultural shift?
- A semester long, newcomer assimilation program was offered at both high schools to address cultural issues
- An Early Childhood Academy preschool program was opened to serve our youngest English Learners.
- Seventeen Chin-English tutor-translators were employed in the district to communicate with students and parents.
- Commercial programs such as System 44, Read 180 and Rosetta Stone were obtained to assist with phonetics and language acquisition.
- A summer EL program at both the elementary and secondary level
- A significant investment in teacher professional development in Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocols (SIOP®) was conducted
- The district embraces culture celebrations days and activities in our schools
Serving the needs of our EL families is a challenge to our district, but it has enriched us as well. Most recently, Perry Township Schools was honored by Exodus Refugee Immigration Inc. as a model for responding to diverse students’ needs and providing an excellent and culturally appropriate education.
If you could improve one aspect of K-12 Education today, what would it be and what changes would you make?
If I could improve one aspect of K-12 education today, I would like every child to enter to kindergarten with a basic, strong English language and math foundation. Offering preschool would help achieve this goal.
What advice would you give to aspiring or beginning superintendents?
My advice to aspiring or beginning superintendents includes the following:
- IF YOU ARE WILLING TO ACCEPT A SALARY FROM THE TAXPAYERS IN A COMMUNITY, YOU HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO REINVEST IN THAT COMMUNITY: When you live and shop within the community there is a level of personal commitment that cannot be replaced. When you knock on a parent’s door and ask them to raise their taxes to support an initiative, you are also publicly placing yourself in that same position.
- COMMUNICATION MUST BE OPEN, HONEST, CLEAR, AND TIMELY. Your parents and staff want to hear the troubling news from you first before they read it in the paper or watch a news item on television. The more you communicate, the stronger the bond in the relationship becomes. After a period of time, you will find yourself sitting in a restaurant and having a waitress tell you that she knows your voice.
- NEVER, EVER LOSE SIGHT THAT EVERY DECISION YOU MAKE AFFECTS THE LIFE OF A CHILD. Children are the reason we wake up in the morning and the reason we exist in this world. The parents entrust us with the lives of their most precious possession and we must always frame every decision as if this individual is our own flesh and blood.
- VISIBILITY IN THE SCHOOLS AND IN THE COMMUNITY IS VITAL: Get out from behind the desk and out of the office. If people don’t know who you are without your name tag, you are not visible enough in the community.
- TWENTY-FOUR / SEVEN RESPONSIBILITY: You live in a fishbowl, accept that fact. You can never, ever take your superintendent hat off. Wherever you go, whatever you do, however you act, you always represent the thousands of children and parents that have placed their faith and trust in you as their superintendent. Never do anything publicly that would embarrass the staff, students, parents, or community members that you serve.
- CREATE A CAREER LADDER CULTURE WITHIN THE ORGANIZATION: The best and the brightest students who graduate from your high school should be encouraged to enter the education profession. They should also be encouraged to return home and teach in their home school. The best and brightest teachers in your school should be encouraged to enter the leadership ranks within your organization. Creating a culture of support and honoring people’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations develops a sense of commitment within the organization.
- EVERY INDIVIDUAL WITHIN THE ORGANIZATION IS VITAL TO THE SUCCESS OF THE SCHOOL DISTRICT. You cannot function without a quality support staff from your custodial crew, bus drivers, cooks, secretaries, aides, and countless others. This concept never rang clearer than this past winter when we had inches of ice on our walks and these individuals stood out in the cold and wet, chopping ice so we could begin school.
- NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF YOUR STUDENT BODY: Student led initiatives have the most potential to be successful and have a lasting impact on the school district. Students serving on our community groups provide insight and first-hand knowledge into consideration of programs for our schools.
- SHARE YOUR CHALLENGES WITH YOUR COMMUNITY: People are committed within a community to the success of a school district. When you have an issue that has far reaching effects on the community, bring the issue to a public forum and ask for their assistance. Above all, be willing to listen and be open to act upon those suggestions
- ACADEMICS FIRST: Maintain your primary organizational focus. Schools exist to academically prepare children to pursue their career dreams after high school. You are charged with the responsibility to protect the instructional time in the classroom which is constantly being impacted by outside entities. The ability to read, write, and problem solve at grade level is more important than ever.
State Superintendent of the Year Interview Questions
As you prepared for the National Superintendent of the Year competition what was your biggest challenge and what have you taken away from the experience?
As I prepared for the National Superintendent of the Year competition, I realized I needed to overcome being modest about the accomplishments in Perry Township Schools while serving as superintendent during the past 6 years. This provided me a “voice” to tout and be proud of the awards, accolades and recognitions of the district! I need to express my pride!
I have also learned that the expectations for superintendents from our Boards, families and communities are similar across the nation.
Has your involvement in this process and the opportunity to look at the superintendence from a national perspective given you any new or different feelings about the role of the superintendent in today’s challenging educational environment?
In the role of as a superintendent in today’s challenging educational environment, there are three key ingredients that are vital to achieve success as a leader.
The first key ingredient is one’s family. As the weeks, months, and years fly by, I have come to realize the most important people in my life are my family. The Little household began thirty-six years ago with my wife, Aina. She is my best friend and someone who has without fail always been there for me. We have three children who are now adults. Being a superintendent’s kid is tough. They follow you around the state whenever you move, make huge sacrifices, and take the criticism when their dad doesn’t call a two hour delay on a day that other school districts have cancelled classes. A supportive family makes that 4:00 a.m. drive to assess the road conditions on mornings with ice and snow on the ground, not quite as difficult.
The second key ingredient to a successful superintendent is their school board. I always say, a superintendent is only as good as the relationship they have with their school board. The board members who are currently serving Perry Township Schools understand their role as the board of directors of a one hundred and forty million dollar enterprise. They set high standards for the superintendent. The Board supports me in my decisions even when they struggle to agree and hold me accountable for the results. These seven people in Perry are the textbook definition of a highly functioning, extremely effective board of directors.
The third key ingredient that is vital to a successful school superintendent is the administrative team. As the superintendent, I am responsible for the function and results of every department in our school corporation. The buck stops at my desk. The Perry Township administrative team is comprised of true professionals who understand their roles and responsibilities. They embrace a strong work ethic and moral compass. When the gavel goes down and a decision is made in our corporation everyone backs the final decision.