Margaret Hoernemann of Avon Community Schools
Named Superintendent of the Year for District 5 and the 2016 Indiana Superintendent of the Year
The superintendent of Avon Community School Corporation, Dr. Margaret Hoernemann, has been named 2016 Superintendent of the Year for District 5 by the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents.
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 resources.
Avon Community School Corporation, a high-performing suburban school district, got caught in an “imperfect storm” of financial losses. It entered the Great Recession with significant debt from building new schools in the early 2000s to accommodate the area’s rapid population growth. As the state’s financial conditioned worsened, new tax caps reduced the highly residential district’s property tax revenue by $39 million, the district deferred purchasing buses for five years, a referendum to approve additional operating funds failed in 2011, and unavoidable teacher layoffs increased class sizes. By 2014 73 percent of the district’s computers were obsolete, with many elementary students using computers older than they were. Avon ranked 325 out of 365 public and charter schools in per-pupil funding in 2015 — $550 per student below the state average.
Hoernemann has been an administrator in the district since 2000 and became superintendent in 2012, after the downward financial spiral had already started. She started her new responsibilities with a listening tour, where school employees shared their frustration over lack of resources and stagnant salaries. Many wished to “go back to the way it used to be.”
Despite previous cuts, the entire organization still needed to become leaner. An Efficiency Task Force of 28 stakeholders was convened in 2014. Their recommendations resulted in new school boundaries to more efficiently share resources, $350,000 in transportation savings and $330,000 savings in custodial staffing.
Concluding that “we can’t cut or grow our way out of this,” the district developed partnerships to supplement reduced revenue. The district used a grant from Purdue University to provide $250,000 in professional development to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) instruction, and a $25,000 Duke Energy Foundation grant funded a summer vocabulary academy for students who are English language learners. Hendricks Regional Health donated 400 newer computers.
Hoernemann convened several groups to educate the community about the district’s financial situation, including business leader luncheons, a collaboration of taxing entities, and Avon Oriole Advocates, a grassroots advocacy group. Because of this multi-faceted outreach to legislators, ACSC funding improved slightly in the new school funding formula.
Hoernemann feels the district is beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel of some very difficult financial times. The district now has a balanced budget and a AA+ bond rating – the district’s highest one in a decade. Efficiencies and new funding allowed the district to add approximately 31 teaching positions for 2015-2016. The additional staffing does not replace all 55 teachers lost, but it is progress.
Hoernemann is a graduate of Miami University of Ohio. She also studied at the University of Dijon in France, earned a master’s degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago, and a Ph.D. from Purdue University. She currently serves as president of the Avon Rotary Club and is a board member for the Avon Chamber of Commerce. She is a co-founder and co-facilitator of the Avon Taxing Entities Collaboration.
Dr. Hoernemann will represent Indiana in the American Association of School Administrators National Superintendent of the Year program.
District 5 includes Boone, Hamilton, Hancock, Hendricks, Johnson, Marion and Shelby counties
Dr. Hoernemann responded to following questions asked of each District winner and several questions as they relate to his selection as the Indiana Superintendendt of the Year for 2016:
What program(s) or activities in your school district that focus on improving student learning do you feel are the most successful?
The number one activity that focuses on improving student learning is quality teaching. It starts with a rigorous selection process to identify (through traditional interview processes and guest teaching demonstrations) the teachers who demonstrate effective pedagogy. Nothing is more important than recruiting and retaining talented teachers. However, skill is just one piece of the puzzle. We also need educators who have building strong relationships as their top priority.
Other programs that are very successful include our hands-on/project based STEM instruction which began with the Indiana Science Initiative and high quality professional development that went along with it. Our STEM efforts have continued with a collaboration with Purdue University on two MSP (Math Science Partnership) Grants over the last several years. The first allowed us to have a science coach for a year as we attempted to change elementary pedagogy. This second (current grant) is providing sustained, intense professional development for our intermediate and middle school teachers.
We are also pursuing Six Standards of Effective Pedagogy in several of our schools. A partnership with Dr. Annela Teemant (of IUPUI) began with our focus on improving instruction for ELL students. It was quickly evident that these best practices are best for all students, which is why this major change in how we teach is being embraced. We are using instructional coaching (from an outside consultant) to build our own capacity to create a cadre of district level coaches and teachers prepared to showcase best practices for English Language Learners
What have been your most significant challenges as a supt. and how have you dealt with them?
An unprecedented financial crisis has provided the single greatest challenge of my superintendency. Most people – even those who live in our district – believe Avon to be a fast-growing, comfortable (and some say “rich”) school district. The reality is a stark contrast.
Declining financial support for K-12 schools, diminishing resources resulting from property tax caps and a stalled economy created an “imperfect storm” that shook our successful district to its core. I was the Avon associate superintendent when the following forces created our imperfect storm:
- Debt — Because our suburban area had grown quickly in the early 2000s, we built several new schools. As a result, we carried significant debt when the Great Recession hit. When the district incurred that debt, no one had any way of knowing that the rules of the game for Indiana school funding were about to change.
- Changes in School Funding — Indiana changed how schools are funded-taking over the General Fund leaving local property taxes to fund transportation, bus replacement, pension debt, capital projects (including technology) and debt service. The legislature then enacted new property tax caps that became fully implemented in 2010. So the tax stream that pays for transportation, technology and our significant building debt is the one that is capped. We were squeezed by reduced income and the high expenses of our recent growth. The tax caps subsequently impacted our highly residential (74%) community by $36 million. Our district didn’t buy busses for five years. In 2014 we sadly quoted that 73% of our computers were obsolete; many elementary students were using equipment older than they were.
- Reductions in the General Fund – As the Great Recession took its toll on all Indiana residents, Indiana schools saw an immediate $300 million reduction in the General Fund in 2010 — a reduction that has only gradually been replaced to get us back to 2009 levels. Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 will be the first year in which ACSC will receive more dollars per child than we did in 2009. Six years of fewer dollars every year. There is nothing that costs less today than it did in 2009 and yet our school system has attempted to provide the same or higher levels of service for our students on fewer dollars every year. My predecessor bravely attempted a referendum for additional operating funds in 2011, an effort that failed. Severe belt tightening started with the layoff of 34 teachers. Class sizes started to creep up.
When I became superintendent in March 2012, our community was worried, divided and angry after the failed referendum. Small annual raises for our teachers ($200 in 2012 and $384 in 2013) rendered our teachers’ compensation much lower than neighboring suburban districts. Support staff and administration received no pay increases for three years.
Efficiency Task Force – Despite earlier cuts, the entire organization needed to become leaner. Employees helped by identifying changes in their worlds. We formed an Efficiency Task Force of 28 stakeholders in November 2013. The Task Force was charged with examining school boundaries, transportation services, and school start/end times to determine if we could gain further operational efficiencies. We engaged the community with a live-streamed, interactive public forum. An online survey allowed others to weigh in, generating open discussion about needed changes. As a result of the recommendations of the Efficiency Task Force, the board approved new boundaries for some schools to more efficiently share resources and a demographic study for possible additional changes for 2016. We have realized $350,000+ in annual savings in transportation, even though we still offer transportation to 100% of our students. We also saved $330,000+ annually by adopting a new custodial staffing model.
Search for Outside Resources — “We can’t cut or grow our way out of this.” We often remind ourselves that the belt can’t get much tighter, and that continued residential growth will never completely overcome our losses due to tax caps. We must find solutions outside the traditional funding sources. Among our efforts to redefine how we manage:
- A recently awarded MSP (Math Science Partnership) Grant from Purdue University will provide $250,000 for professional development for improving STEM instruction at the intermediate and middle school levels.
- A $25,000 grant from the Duke Energy Foundation allowed us to offer Vocabulary Academy this past summer to 35 primary ELL and low oral language students.
- Our exclusive wellness provider, Hendricks Regional Health, heard our concerns about obsolete technology and donated 400 three-year-old computers when they refreshed theirs.
- We entered the complicated cell phone tower business to generate income.
Reaching a Balance — Painful decisions resulted in a balanced budget in 2014 and an AA+ bond rating – our highest in a decade. The balanced budget was a positive step, but we still have larger class sizes (average 31-33 in grades 5/6, Kindergarten classes in the high 20s, middle school core teachers seeing 190 students a day, elementary art teachers with 800 students). We reduced staff across every category by 11 to 12% while enrollment grew 6.8%. These difficult steps had to be taken to survive – and to get everyone’s attention.
Seeking a Change in State Funding – During the 2015 legislative session, we worked simultaneously with the Taxing Entities Collaboration, the Avon Chamber of Commerce and Oriole Advocates to encourage legislators to improve our funding without hurting other schools. These efforts resulted in slightly better per-pupil funding for ACSC. The funding formula was adjusted, giving ACSC an additional $270 per student over two years.
Turning a Corner — Because of our new operating efficiencies and our increase in per-pupil funding from the state, we hired approximately 31 new teachers for 2015-16. That’s a long way from the 55 we have lost, but it is progress. We were able to offer teachers a salary increase in our fall 2015 negotiations. They are beginning to see – and believe — that we are turning a corner.
We have not yet completely cured our financial crisis, but there is light at the end of our “imperfect storm” tunnel.
If you could improve one aspect of K-12 Education today, what would it be and what changes would you make?
Like all of us, I would focus on giving educators the respect and compensation they deserve. We debate teacher shortage but don’t have the will to be bold leaders in this country to dramatically improve working conditions for teachers. In addition to more respect and better compensation I would like to see teachers have time to collaborate, learn from others and improve their practice. In short, I would like to see our country provide the kind of professional time for our teachers as is provided in so many other countries.
Additionally addressing poverty is a necessary step to improving education. Until we as a society value all our children and provide for their basic physical and emotional needs, we will not be able to deliver on the promise of public education.
What advice would you give to aspiring or beginning superintendents?
Learn as much as you can before getting into the position. Seek a variety of opportunities in all phases of district operations: HR, law, curriculum, finance and politics. Ready yourself for the next step and then embrace it! Once in the position take good care of yourself. It can be a stressful position but you are also modeling for all your employees how to handle demanding work. (I’m still working on this part!)
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?
The preparation has been simply to prepare the national application. It was challenging to articulate accomplishments that are not mine rather the result of an entire organization of dedicated employees. Additionally, knowing the incredibly innovative, bold programming occurring throughout the USA, it is difficult to feel worthy to even be under consideration. This is not false humility—rather the reality of knowing that as a superintendent, I have a lot of growing yet to do.
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?
The process has reinforced my belief that we are fortunate to be in these demanding positions. Public school superintendents make a difference every day. We can control the tone and content of the dialogue about public education if we work together rather than competing. We can continue to fight for the whole child and recognition that our kids are more than a score. It is a privilege to stand up every day and tell the success story that is public education in Indiana. I certainly feel a renewed sense of pride in our profession and am grateful for the opportunity to stand in for all the incredible superintendents in this state.