Magazine article Technology & Learning

Grand Plans and Bold Moves; Cover Subject Timothy Jenney, Superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, Talked to Us about School Reform and the Sometimes Rocky Road of Leadership

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Grand Plans and Bold Moves; Cover Subject Timothy Jenney, Superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, Talked to Us about School Reform and the Sometimes Rocky Road of Leadership

Article excerpt

When first-year superintendent Timothy Jenney took the liberty of spending $7.5 million of the Virginia Beach schools budget surplus on technology, he did a good job of catching everybody's attention. The city council, to whom these funds traditionally reverted, took a particularly pointed interest. "Well, I survived that one" remarks Jenney, now in his sixth year leading the district, "and that pretty much set the stage for my priorities"

Grand plans, bold moves, and a business-like strategy have been Jenney's answer to taking a district that was a "disaster" technology-wise, and turning it into a model of digital best practices. (See "Virginia Beach: Ahead of the Curve," page 8.)

Challenges? From day one. Shortly after taking his post, Jenney found himself dealing with a grand jury demanding the resignation of the entire school board as a result of a $12 million deficit left by his predecessor. "I had barely unpacked before things exploded," he says. Despite what he terms a "swinging door" of board members that first year, the new superintendent wasted no time getting down to business. In truly corporate fashion, he hired the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche to examine the district's technology program and make recommendations based on industry standards. "That was exactly the right thing to do," he says. "They looked at such things as the service technician-to-machine ratio. If it was one to 50 in the business industry, it was one to 900 in our school district. The study bought credibility and buy-in from the board and the community."

Jenney found "institutional inertia" another major obstacle. Again, combining business savvy with creative problem solving, he put all staff on a five-year plan to complete basic technology competencies, offering $300 stipends to those who could demonstrate mastery without district training, thus saving hundreds of thousands in professional development costs. These days, the challenge is not inertia but a demand for services and programs beyond what the budget can provide. "I'd much rather have that than naysayers," says Jenney.

Another challenge has been in dealing with those who don't buy into the superintendent's businesslike approach to leading the district. "They think we're comparing children to widgets," he says, "but we're not. Dealing with children is a different kind of business--the product is teaching and learning."

Jenney, who spoke with me during a break in finals for his executive MBA program, also finds hiring staff from the business world brings a much-needed broader perspective to education. His CFO, CIO, and assistant superintendents have backgrounds as CPAs, engineers, public relations specialists, and even a congressional chief of staff.

Maintaining a professional image has been another, sometimes criticized, priority for the Jenney administration. An assistant tells me some find the superintendent's "impeccable" attire and higher dress standard for employees inappropriate in an education setting. The district has also instituted an aggressive public relations policy and has crafted a Web site (www.vbcps. k12.va.us) that Jenney says he's proud to put up against any business. "We are good at what we do, but it's important that we market that quality through high-profile techniques," he says. …

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