HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Transition and Stability: The Day School and the Interim Head

by Rita Cortes Issue: Board Leadership

Before getting too far into this commentary, let me make sure of full disclosure: This article does not purport to represent any kind of scientific or organized study of the experience of Jewish day schools and interim Heads of School and their relationship with their Boards of Trustees. Rather, my intent is to share with you some of our experiences from the past year at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas (a suburb of Kansas City), as seen through the eyes of the Chair of the Board of Trustees.

When our Head of School announced his departure in late winter/early spring of 2006, the Board of Trustees was faced with the challenge of determining whether to hire a new Head for the next school year (we were largely already past the hiring season for new Heads) or to engage an Interim Head for the school year 2005-2006. The decision was made to engage an existing administrator as Interim Head until a new Head was hired, whether that was in the short term or done through a more traditional process.

This situation presented what I will call the first of the “new challenges” posed in a time of transition. Traditionally (and appropriately) the role of the Board with regard to staffing of the school is to hire, review, support and, where necessary, dismiss the Head of School. While a Board may be apprised of other staffing decisions, typically as part of the budget approval process, those who work in the area of institutional governance often remind us that the Board has one employee—the Head of School. In fact, I would posit that the greatest area of misunderstanding in day school culture is the notion of Board influence or right to influence in staffing decisions made by the Head of School. Not that it does not happen—sometimes Boards assert themselves into this area, sometimes Heads seek input that blurs the line and creates a sense of authority in the Board that is difficult to later revoke. But every institution aspires to well delineated roles between the Board and Head and staffing is clearly one of those roles within the Head’s authority.

As a result of the traditional separation of roles, Board members, particularly those who are not parents, do not have great exposure to other administrators within the school, even a school of our size (at the time 260 students). At the moment of the departure announcement, the Board remains largely dependent on the recommendation of the departing Head and parent Trustees with regard to the strengths and potential of internal Interim Head candidates. While there are individuals around the United States who will engage in Interim Headships from outside a school community, the Board in this case appreciated and respected the departing Head’s recommendation, who was a long time school employee and administrator. This recommendation truly was a stabilizing gift to the school. The external Interim Head model is likely more viable in the larger Jewish communities on the east and west coast and possibly Chicago. Here in the heartland, the internal model presented us with an excellent option. We were also fortunate that our Interim Head made clear from the outset that she did not intend to seek the permanent Head of School position, to avoid any ambiguity which I think was critical to her success.

At the same time our Upper School Principal, Marion Gould, was engaged as Interim Head, the Board formed a Search Committee to begin the process of introspection and planning necessary to make an informed hire for the next permanent Head of School. While a brief search took place that spring, it was quickly determined that it was crucial for the Board, with the guidance of the Search Committee and its consultant to work to define its priorities and objectives to guide the hiring process. This need for planning was evident from the evaluation process of prospective candidates—we knew what they were looking for but needed to better define who we were as a school and what skills we felt were necessary to build on the strengths of the 40 year old community day school we served. As a result, the Board accepted the Search Committee’s recommendation to plan a year long “traditional” search for a new Head. Mrs. Gould’s commitment to the school and its principles allowed the Board the time to do its work properly and the Search Committee, under the leadership of Carol Porter (a parent and Trustee), put in long hours to define, to search, to interview, to analyze and, ultimately to hire, a fabulous new Head of School in the spring of 2007, Mr. Howard Haas. The support of organizations like RAVSAK and PEJE and their leadership throughout this period was also of great importance in this process.

In retrospect, one of the steps we should have taken would have been the establishment of a Head Support Team to provide institutional and community knowledge to our Interim Head. While a Head typically has oversight of all school functions—educational, business, development, etc.—most internal interim Heads come out of a specific function within the school and need access, at their discretion, to resources which can help them through new areas, answer questions without “agenda” and be a confidential source of guidance. We were able, in large part, to connect our Interim Head with some of these resources over time, but the establishment of such a small, confidential Team at the outset would have provided her with an invaluable resource.

What are the key objectives for the Interim Head? Each school is in a different place when engaging an Interim Head, but all are in some form of transition. In our case the primary objective was to maintain stability—in our educational objectives, in staffing, in enrollment—to allow a focused search to take place, to ensure that students and their families continued to receive a quality and caring educational experience, and to assure the community that we were engaging in our mission in a positive and thoughtful manner. Not that the process was without challenge. In the midst of this the Board was also engaged in strategic planning to meet the objectives of our primary accrediting agency, a process that I would not advise take place simultaneous with a Head of School search if at all possible.

Another challenge with an Interim Head is finding the balance for both the Board Chair and the Board in providing advice where needed but staying within the proper roles of Board and Head. We were fortunate that my predecessor, John Uhlmann, guided the Board through a review of its governance processes and procedures during the year preceding our Head’s departure and led the Board in adopting a new governance framework. Many times during the Interim year we found ourselves referring back to this framework for guidance on how to properly draw the line between the Board’s role and that of the Interim Head. The reality is that while an Interim Head may need more coaching and external support than an experienced Head of School, the role of the Board during the Interim period should not change in relation to the Head. This aspect might be the most challenging to sustain as it is not entirely intuitive. Board members act with good intent and want to help their institution thrive, but it is important to maintain leadership structure and role separation during this period for the future success of the school.

Mrs. Gould and I worked frequently on ensuring that where she sought advice it was given but that there was no ambiguity about who was running the day-to-day operations of the school. Mrs. Gould worked tirelessly throughout the Interim period to ensure that standards remained high for faculty, students and staff and she was the key partner to Mr. Haas, our new Head of School, in the transition to his leadership. The keys to her success were solid and consistent communication, maintaining quality standards, and the ability to manage a vast array of demands with kindness, professionalism and dignity. She conveyed a sense of calm throughout the school and empowered those around her, some of whom had also taken on interim roles to support the school during the transition year.

In retrospect, I think an Interim year may be of value for many schools as an opportunity for introspection and planning if the resources exist within the school to sustain leadership during such a period. The Interim year allowed our school to consolidate our strengths and define our goals and objectives for the future in a way that is often challenging to do in the whirl and demands of the typical school and Board year. The Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy benefited from the professional leadership of our Interim Head and the ability to lay the groundwork for a transition to great new leadership. ♦

Rita Cortes is the Board chair at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, KS. Rita can be reached at ritacortes@hoffmancortes.com

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Board Leadership

The role of a board is to lead—to formulate and clarify mission and policies, raise, oversee and manage funds, hire, supervise, support and collaborate with the head, all through the lens of Jewish wisdom. This issue provides guidance for day schools to find the right leaders to serve on the board, and to strengthen their leadership while they are serving.

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