New admins focus on vision

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Essex Westford School District chief operating officer Brian Donahue and superintendent Beth Cobb say they’re working to create a vision for the district. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

For the last year and a half, Essex administrators juggled daily tasks with transition efforts, an imprecise tango leaving most wishing for just a few more hours in the day.

Meanwhile, the Essex Westford School District’s first official day, July 1, flickered like a beacon on a foggy night, a reminder of the bigger picture; and though chief operating officer Brian Donahue only started last month, his arrival still felt like a final, culminating moment.

If only there wasn’t still so much left to do.

“Now it’s time to listen,” Donahue said.

In an interview last week, Donahue and superintendent Beth Cobb laid out a main goal for their first few months: learning what people value, and how that can be used to intertwine two formerly silo-ed systems.

That’s easier said than done in a district of 10 schools and 4,500 students, especially with an administrative team split across town. Yet the challenges are pushing the duo to create a partnership between COO and superintendent unlike which either has experienced.

They’re sharing offices, planning joint school visits and witnessing how staff operate. They’re also taking time to stop and listen, a small step toward building trust necessary in a successful organization, Donahue said.

“The present right now has an intensity to it,” he said. “To help combat that intensity, you have to think, what is that future we have in front of us?”

But first, they must consider existing traditions.

Donahue has a bit more experience here. He served in a similar capacity with CCSU for six years in the early 2000s before joining Vermont Public Radio. Meanwhile, Cobb is working on an entry plan to detail how she’ll get up to speed.

So far, she’s found her staff well equipped to shoulder the load while she finds her way.

“I didn’t have some of these supports from where I came from. It was more, I rolled up my sleeves and did it,” Cobb said.

Some initial tasks require this go-getter attitude, like merging student handbooks and revamping the communications system. Others require more nuance, like generating a vision for the future.

Both administrators agree EWSD is uniquely positioned for the latter.

This may sound a bit superfluous, especially considering the fiscal challenges Vermont schools face among the shifting tides of federal funding. But Donahue said this work often supersedes to-do lists.

By understanding what’s important — what teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members value — leaders can prioritize spending. A vision guides how the board allocates resources, Donahue said, and can flag acceptable sacrifices as the district eyes cost-saving goals.

Take the administrative office layout, for example. Instead of leasing a new building that fits all EWSD administrators, they’re using what’s already available: Finance and human resources are located at 51 Park St., while educational administrators are at the former ETSD campus.

Though not ideal, it’s a small decision that sets the tone for the future, Donahue said. In the same way, he and Cobb hope a shared vision capitalizes on the very reason people sought a career in education.

“There’s something about it that drives you,” Donahue said. “That is the energy, that is the magic sauce inside of an organization. If you can get that, and constantly be generating it, there’s no stopping it.”

Which begs the question: When, exactly, will they know they’ve found the right one?

“It’s cliché,” Cobb said, “but you know it.”

“You feel it,” Donahue added.

It’s when calls to volunteers pull in three times as many people, he said, and leaders don’t have to constantly worry about their employees’ state of mind.

“They’re walking out feeling like they made a difference that day,” Donahue said.

This work will take place over the next year and beyond, Cobb said, noting the process will likely move slower than she’d sometimes prefer.

But she also recognizes the significance of now. As EWSD’s first-ever superintendent, she must thrive off discovery, like a ship’s captain heading for unchartered lands. On board is an Essex community that’s known nothing different in more than a century of education.

Cobb is prepared for a summer of introductions, like the pre-kindergarten family she met last week, whom she told, “I hope I’m here all your years.”

For Donahue, it couldn’t get more exciting than that.

“That pre-K student will never know anything different than this,” he said.