The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 4, 2008

Carlisle School releases facilitator’s recommendations

After meeting privately over several months with Carlisle School faculty and officials, in January management consultant John Littleford, recommended ways to improve the school climate, following up with a written summary to the Carlisle School Committee (CSC) and superintendent in May. Former CSC Chair Nicole Burkel gave a presentation on the process and the facilitator’s conclusions at the June 4 CSC meeting. Littleford’s nine-page May report, obtained by the Mosquito through a Freedom of Information request, is summarized below.

His written review provides recommendations focused on the superintendent, CSC, faculty and teachers’ union leadership. He does not directly address the two principals or other administrators. He notes that the suggestions are lengthy and said, “The intent was to create a balanced set of recommendations in terms of tone and number so that no one individual or group felt unduly responsible for the problem and so that all could feel part of and committed to finding solutions.”

More than once he encourages, “Presume good intent.” According to the facilitator, “Repeated violation of this principle is one cause of most organizational school climate and culture problems whereas respecting it goes a long way towards improvement.”

Facilitator’s background

Littleford has worked for many years as a consultant, primarily in the management of private schools. According to the company web site ( Littleford & Associates, LLC, founded in 1994 and headquartered in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, provides “management consulting services to independent and international schools and nonprofit organizations.” In “Managing School Climate” on the web site of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States ( Littleford wrote, “The key ingredient in developing and maintaining a healthy school climate is faculty morale. While board, parent and student morale are very important, they tend to flow, negatively or positively, from faculty morale.”

District strengths and challenges

In his May 1 report he described his impressions of the Carlisle School and some of the factors contributing to management issues during the past few years (see timeline below). He says that the school “functions on a very high level in terms of student outcomes and parental satisfaction” and notes that it is considered a desirable school at which to work. He also says, “Parental involvement in the daily life of the school, made possible in part by the relative affluence of the community, and close and enduring relationships among faculty and staff lend a private school ‘feel’ to the Carlisle School District.”

However, while the school is successful and well regarded, he notes that demographics and “fiscal realities of the local government” will make it hard to maintain annual funding increases and the high quality of the school. A common cost-cutting issue, he said, is that of cutting personnel versus materials.

Littleford believes that parental involvement in the affairs of the school management should be limited. He says, “A ‘no confidence’ vote in the superintendent created short-term political activity and dissatisfaction but also may have set the stage for future inappropriate intrusion into the day-to-day management of the school district. Even though taxpayers with children who attend a local public school have different ‘rights’ and expectations than independent day school parents, excessive or regular meddling in personnel and other issues within the domain of the administration is never appropriate and in the worst case, is damaging to any school culture and climate and a distraction from the education of the students.”

Superintendent transition issues

Littleford says that schools often expend a great deal of effort in hiring a new superintendent, but often provide inadequate support during the following transition period. Factors that he feels affect the transition of a new superintendent include the history and style of the predecessor, the culture of the faculty, and issues driving change. He said that depending on these factors, the transition period may last three to five years.

According to “Factors Impacting Superintendent Turnover: Lessons from the Field” at the Connexions web site (, different studies have found the average tenure to range between three and seven years. A survey of over 2,000 superintendents by the American Association of School Superintendents in 2000 calculated the average tenure was about 5.5 years.

Littleford observed, “the longer the tenure of the prior leader the greater the tendency of the decision-makers in the search and hiring process to choose a successor with a polar opposite leadership style. Based upon the feedback from the interview process, this pattern seems to have held true at Carlisle.” He heard the previous superintendent, Davida Fox-Melanson described as, “an excellent speaker, a charismatic presence and staff supporter who had built connections with key players in town as well as a loyal and stable administrative team.” He said that succeeding the previous administration “would have been difficult for any new superintendent.” While Doyle was called “unafraid of taking on change” Littleford felt, “It is generally advisable that the new leader ‘lie low in the weeds’ during the first year or two in order to build political capital with key constituents.”

Superintendent strengths and challenges

His observations included: “In addition to her attention to the welfare of the students and forward thinking approach to education, Marie was described as making more efforts to be visible and to work collaboratively with the Board of Selectmen, the Finance Committee and the Long-Term Capital Requirements Committee in analyzing various funding scenarios. She has clearly shown concern about choosing the process and solution which balance the financial realities of the district with the best interests of the faculty, staff and the students. The solution and impact differ depending on whether the goal is a short-term fix or long-term survival of the district.

“Marie Doyle came into the Carlisle district as an outsider and from the prior role of a principal. She was unfamiliar not only with the community itself but with the school’s unique culture which has some similarities to a small private school. It would have been more prudent, according to this consultant, to have moved more cautiously on changes such as introducing an elementary world language program until she had learned the culture and the key personalities more thoroughly and had built some bridges with them. Getting to know the culture and key players would have been simpler had her office been less remote.

“In Marie’s view, however, distancing herself physically was one way to establish herself as a ‘superintendent’ with big picture responsibilites as opposed to a ‘principal’ intimately involved in the daily life of the school. In this relatively small K-8 environment, that distinction and delineation of responsibilites sometimes has seemed unclear under a new team.

“Whereas Davida was perceived as having a more predictable decision-making style which enabled her to achieve buy-in in most cases, Marie has been described as more impulsive and conveying the impression that she has a very full plate. Thus, she has been caught occasionally in conflicting statements sometimes as a result of not having gathered and processed completely all of the relevant facts. In an attempt to gather input for her decisions she has established task forces, but this has not always proven to be an effective strategy especially if she fails to adopt the point of view of the particular task force, the task force is too big, or if there are too many of them.”

Faculty and teachers union strengths and challenges

Littleford said the faculty is described by parents and teachers as: “lifelong learners, supportive of one another, supported by parents, loyal to the district, qualified teachers with good relationships with students and committed to meeting a range of their needs.

“On the minds of all teachers interviewed is the stress of looming budgetary cuts and the implications for them individually and collectively. Some find the current lines of decision-making authority confusing.”

He describes a negative climate and says, “Some teachers, younger or newer ones in particular are fearful of expressing conflicting opinions freely regarding the administration. They have observed some inappropriate treatment of the superintendent as well as anger about some of her actions and decisions.”

Most teachers “have a high regard for Mike Miller’s leadership as CTA President,” Littleford said, adding, “It is acknowledged that he has attempted, by and large, to maintain a neutral, unemotional position between the groups who have supported the transition to the new superintendent and those who have been resistant to her leadership. He has made a concerted effort to communicate with the superintendent one-on-one in order to find solutions to various issues that may be acceptable to the CTA membership, the School Committee and the superintendent.” However, the facilitator noted that some teachers felt CTA meetings and faculty lounge conversations were overly critical of the superintendent to the extent that some teachers “do not wish to be present in those settings. To Mr. Miller’s credit, he is aware of these issues and has been attempting to steer discussions back onto a more productive line.”

School Committee’s turn

Littleford praised the School Committee’s time commitment and dedication, but said, “Despite their dedication to serving the district, the School Committee admittedly has not always presented as united a front when ‘under fire’ and has not been as collegial towards one another as it should be.” He elaborated his ideas to maintain “appropriate ‘boundaries of communication and channels of authority,’ such as refraining from communicating with parents or teachers outside of the ‘board room.’”

Overall recommendations

Littleford reported that recommendation lists were given to the superintendent, the faculty, the CTA leadership and School Committee at the final workshop in January. Workshop participants formed subgroups to discuss the ideas further. He concludes his report, “The children should be the most important recipients of this improved school climate but those who work within the district need and deserve a higher degree of professional trust and courteous behavior between and among one another.” ∆

Additional school-related articles in this week's edition:


© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito