Hot seat: School superintendent weathers the flak

Posted: Monday, April 08, 2002

Legislators and state officials have raised her ire. Some employees accuse her of treason. And parents call her up at all hours to vent frustrations.

Donna Peterson gets pressure from all sides. But she says she still loves her job as superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

"It's never boring," she said.

She praised the people on her staff as excellent educators, dedicated professionals and friends she enjoys working alongside. Sometimes on her travels, other districts have tried to recruit her and, although superintendents in some other states get more pay for less work, she has no interest in moving, she said.

"I love this district," she said.

Just a decade ago, Peterson was teaching fourth grade at North Star Elementary School in Nikiski. Her perspective has changed as she has moved through the ranks from classroom teacher to principal to curriculum director and, in 1999, to superintendent. It is a tough job, heading the peninsula's largest employer and largest public agency, the fourth-largest and arguably most diverse school district in Alaska.

These days it's a tougher job than ever, with the district facing divisive contract talks with employee unions, falling enrollment and yet another round of budget cuts.

"You can move forward, or you can have a miserable life," she said.

Peterson said she would rather be working with state officials and lobbying the public to drum up more money for the district than bogged down in the central office trying to pinch pennies and explain to employees that the district is broke.

"I spend my entire life defending teachers, and then I get beat up by them," she said. "... You can't take that stuff personally and live."

As a teacher, she said she felt responsible for each child in her class and worked to meet their needs and keep everybody (children, parents and principal) happy. As her job has changed, she still feels responsible for the children, but a lot more people are involved, and it has become impossible to keep them all happy, she said.

When she was the principal at North Star, it was a balancing act to liaison between her teachers and the district central office. But now as superintendent, she finds herself caught between -- on the one hand -- the Legislature, state administration, federal government and lawyers and -- on the other hand -- the public, students and staff.

"Yes, my skin is thicker," she said. "I struggle with not being cynical."

The current contract negotiations between the district and its employees have increased criticism of her role.

"When she went to central office I think her viewpoint of education changed," said Henry Anderson, a teacher at North Star who has singled out Peterson for public criticism. He said he had her child in class years ago, recommended her for her first district teaching job and was impressed by her work as his principal. When she was promoted, he had high hopes for her leadership.

"She has not carried through with understanding and respect," he said.

The school board, which has the power to hire and fire superintendents, feels differently.

"It's baloney," Joe Arness, a member of the school board, said about the criticism.

"Donna's ascendancy to the superintendent's position was very rapid, and in its rapidity kind of set her up to not be prepared," he said.

But she has risen to the challenges, admitting her mistakes, listening to people and taking decisive action in difficult circumstances. Being superintendent in a time when the district is shrinking is grueling, he said.

"She's got some pretty dramatic stuff going on that the people in the buildings don't even know exists," he said. "It's a huge job."

People misunderstand the differences and sometimes conflicts between delivering education in the classroom and the business of education. People in classrooms don't see the larger issues a superintendent must handle, he said.

"As far as I'm concerned, we have the finest superintendent in the state of Alaska," Arness said.

When the school board recruited Peterson for the job three years ago, someone told her that along the way superintendents pick up "rocks" and eventually end up with so many of them that the weight topples them. She scoffed, trusting to her communications skills, network of good will and knowledge of the district to help her avoid such pitfalls.

Now, Peterson said she was naive to think that.

But she intends to press on, considers the work a good match for her personality and focuses on making the district the best she can envision decades into the future.

"What we know about districts that do well is they have consistent leadership and support from the community," she said.

Being superintendent includes the ability to get things done. Sometimes when a problem arises, she can pick up the phone and solve it. But other times, she has to check the rules or make sure she is not stepping on someone's toes.

"I had a false sense, as a teacher, of the power of the superintendent," she said. "I didn't understand the vulnerability of the superintendent."

As Peterson has grown more experienced with being superintendent, she has become more cautious. For every decision, she must ponder potential unintended consequences and how she is going to explain the decision to people.

"You don't move too quickly," she said.

Criticism, roadblocks and the pace of change can be frustrating.

"Nothing in my training prepared me for this job in these times. Just like nothing in my teaching training prepared me for a classroom," she said.

In college, she studied political science and has found that angle on human nature as good a background for this sort of work as any administration classes she took.

Political science is much on her mind these days as she tries to get legislators to approve more base funding for education and to change the way school districts are funded.

The current system pays the far-flung, mostly rural peninsula district about the same per student as Anchorage, with its large, accessible urban schools. The district analyzed the state's formulas and the 1999 report on which they are based and found serious mistakes regarding the Kenai Peninsula.

Those mistakes, Peterson believes, are the root of the district's problems and explain why the peninsula's schools are suffering more than others in the state. The mistakes are costing the peninsula district about $2.8 million per year, she said.

Peterson is pondering the best way to get the state to change the rules of the game to get some financial relief for the district.

"How hard do you push?" she asked.

Kenai Peninsula legislators have been supportive, and she praised their public spiritedness. But even with a positive reception in Juneau, the fiscal outlook for at least next school year is glum.

In addition, federal grants which have funded district programs such as class-size reductions in primary grades are in grave danger of disappearing, she warned. The new Bush administration education initiatives are behind schedule, and Alaska educators have been disappointed with what D.C. has shown them so far, she said.

"It puts everything in question," she said.

The district has a big voice in what goes on at a state level in formulating educational policies, and even has national pull. For example, on Thursday a district in Pennsylvania called her asking for information on a peninsula reading program. The superintendent has to look at that bigger picture.

"That is the piece I didn't understand as a teacher," she said.

Sometimes now Peterson feels an invisible wall between herself and former colleagues. It has surprised her. She believes that the situation, more than herself, has changed, she said.

"I'm still me," she said.

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