Columbia Public Schools superintendent off to a brisk start

Tuesday, October 20, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 3:00 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 20, 2009
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Every day, Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher visits a different school to have lunch with the students and speak to the faculty and staff.

COLUMBIA — It's lunchtime, and kindergartner Alon Jordan shoots her neighbor — a big guy in a suit — a pouting, sidelong glance. Not only has this man disrupted her 20-minute lunch period and taken two milks, now he's talking during quiet time.

Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher enjoys the company. Right now, he's asking the students at Benton Elementary School what information is appropriate to tell strangers. (Almost nothing, he tells them.) In the lunch line a few minutes earlier, he quizzed them on which numbers in their lunch IDs are biggest, and they taught him how to line up properly.

Belcher, superintendent since July 1, tries to drop in on one of Columbia's 29 public schools every day, just to see how things are going. That's part of the reason he's eating lunch this day in a chair that's far too small for his 5-foot-10 frame. A former teacher and principal, Belcher likes to be in the schools, to share lunch with the students and look at their artwork in the hallways — to see for himself how each tile in the district mosaic fits into the larger picture.

The hardest part on his visits is learning the rules for each school. Here at Benton, the kindergartners are required to be quiet for a few minutes during lunch. Otherwise, the lunch staff says, they'll talk away the period. 

Chatter in the room builds again, then stops after a scolding shush. Belcher looks sheepishly at Alon.

"Was I talking too loud?" he whispers.

Between bites of chicken nuggets, she nods, still hesitant to speak during quiet time.

The first 100 days

The first 100 days is a common measure in assessing job performance. The term was first applied to an American president in 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt called his Congress into a months-long special session and passed 15 major pieces of legislation, marking the start of the New Deal. Even though it's a historic measure, it's still an arbitrary one — even in definition. If you only count weekdays, Belcher's 100th day isn't until Nov. 14. With weekends, it was Oct. 9. 

It's also hard to hold a man to goals he doesn't really remember. "You're going to have to remind me what I said," Belcher admitted, referring to five informal goals he set out for his first 100 days in the district's top job.

At his first press conference as superintendent, Belcher said he wanted to:

  • Start a strategic planning process to establish strong district goals.
  • Develop close relationships with members of the Columbia School Board.
  • Outline a list of programs to evaluate at a critical level, find out which programs are working and which aren't, and look where money can be redirected.
  • Become well-known around the district.
  • Visit all of the district's buildings.

But for someone who hasn't been working with those goals explicitly in mind, Belcher appears to be doing pretty well.

The district has formed groups to concentrate on a five-year strategic plan, and school/community programs coordinator Michelle Baumstark said the district is mid-stream in the process. There will be two public forums to discuss the plan. Originally scheduled for early November, the district has postponed the forums until February to give the committees time to solidify their goals.

As for the budget, Belcher has asked most of the district's departments for desk audits, starting a slow and probably painful search for much-needed funds.

Where he really excels, though, is in outreach. New School Board member Christine King and board President Jan Mees say he's available for formal and informal chats. Belcher has been to every building in the district, noting each trip on a chart he keeps on his desk. He also shows up at football games, Rotary meetings and fundraisers all over town, introducing himself to as many people as possible.

"I'd say he's five for five," said Sue McClintic, a learning specialist at Benton who asked Belcher for his 100-day plan back in July. McClintic, also president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association, acknowledged later that the benchmark is a cliché but said she asked about his early plans because it's a question journalists often ask presidents, and she saw a parallel.

"Dr. Belcher's like a president to teachers," McClintic said. "He sets up the relationships, which have been a struggle before." 

As part of his effort to build a rapport with district staff, Belcher asked the district's technical support team to make an e-mail list for each school so he can contact them after his visits. He has also been filming video messages with his Flip camera and sending them over the district intranet. Principals get weekly messages on Friday; staff members hear from Belcher when there's a specific issue he wants to address.

The first message Belcher sent centered on his love of the blues. He used the story of the devil and Robert Johnson at the crossroads as a metaphor for the state of Columbia Public Schools. And everyone, Belcher said, should be working toward a wang dang doodle — the best party ever.

Managing the district

The first thing people mention when describing Chris Belcher is his accessibility. He follows up on off-hand comments made in the hallway. He juggles appointments to find time to talk. He fires off e-mails like a Gatling gun, even if it's just to say he's looking into things.

"He's definitely like the Energizer Bunny," Mees said, "and he meets demands head-on."

Belcher came to Columbia from his hometown of Kearney, northeast of Kansas City, where he oversaw a much smaller district. Some thought his small-town sensibility might serve him well in a bigger community. "Coming from a smaller district, he knows how to handle day-to-day operations," King said. "He can rely on other people here, but he knows how things work."

Mary Laffey, assistant superintendent for human resources, admires his willingness to engage in frank conversation.

“People are not afraid to challenge him, and he’s not offended by that,” Laffey said.

Each school has its own worries. Foremost in Bernard Solomon's mind is the budget. It's hard, the Lange Middle School principal said, to get the money the school needs, and he also wants to see the teachers' salary schedule back in full operation. The part that counts experience has been frozen for two years, including this year; the part that counts educational advancement has not been frozen. The salary schedule for support staff was frozen last year and is being operated this year.

Right now, the cash-strapped district is taking a hard look at how its money is distributed. For 2009-2010, the School Board approved $4.4 million in budget reductions. This year, Belcher has asked all departments that are not purely academic programs to submit reports detailing their expenses, program functions and what percentage of their funding comes from local, state and federal funding.

"Funding's a complicated issue," Belcher said, offering an example. "(People) see special education oftentimes as a really expensive program. But a lot of that is 100 percent federal money. Some of it's only 30 percent federal money. We have to have that in our information packet before we can really make those decisions."

Laffey thinks Belcher may be helped by times of crisis. He’s taking office in an economic downturn, a time when district staff and parents are ready to make hard choices about priorities and funding cuts. Everyone understands that times are tough.

So far, Solomon thinks Belcher is doing well and is clear about his philosophical beliefs and vision for the district.

"It's still very early to say," said Solomon, who has worked in the district for three years. "He is sending out the message that he wants building leaders to have more autonomy. For some that's welcomed, but for some that's new territory."

Solomon said Belcher has made himself and his staff available to provide guidance to those who need it and has visited Lange about three times.

"I imagine Dr. (Phyllis) Chase also visited schools quite often in her first year," Solomon said. "That may be normal for a first-year superintendent."

Normal or not, staff across the district have noticed Belcher in the schools. He's made four trips to Douglass High School. He's stopped by the Park Avenue Title I preschool. He swung by the Career Center. Principal Troy Hogg, who is starting his second year at Benton, said Belcher and all of the top administrators have stopped by a few times so far — something that didn't happen last year. 

Belcher is not only visiting, he's taking notes. Laura Sandstedt, who teaches second and third grade at Ridgeway Elementary School, said that after his visit, the staff got an e-mail from him noting several small things about the school that he thought were worthy of praise.

“It showed he was not only there to take the temperature,” said Sandstedt, who is also president of the Columbia Public Schools Employee Organization. "He recognized what we're doing to help in the classroom."

"He's addressing issues very effectively because he's present," said Daniel Boatman, principal of Field Elementary School. "His strength is communication. Every Friday, he puts out that video message. He can't be in every building every day, but he provides enough communication for his vision."

Leading the community

A few hours after he ate chicken nuggets (but not his green beans) at Benton, Belcher stops by the Ridgeway media center to attend a meeting of the Columbia Public Schools Employee Organization, something Chase did, too. He shows up to listen but also to address a rumor about changes to the sick leave policy that has been causing some worry. He had already made a short video setting the record straight but wants to make sure his message was clear.

"Did you all see my video? Can you all watch it?" he asks, as every hand in the room goes up and smiles creep across tired faces. He's doing things a little differently, he explains, and introducing things in committee for discussion rather than approval. He wants to bring things up earlier, and he wants their opinions.

Belcher also knows who to ask when he needs help. Jim Ritter, who served as superintendent of Columbia Public Schools twice, retiring in 2003, returned to the position as an interim, part-time superintendent last year. Belcher said that the two breakfast together about once a month and that he calls Ritter when he wants some more historical context on an issue. "Sometimes things will come up and you'll wonder if there's a past there," Belcher said.

Wally Pfeffer, president of Hickman High School's parent-teacher-student association, said he has noticed differences in management styles between Belcher and Chase, who resigned in August 2008 after five years with the district.

Chase, he said, got to the know the community by cultivating relationships with community leaders. Belcher takes a more grass-roots approach. Pfeffer has seen Chris and Jackie Belcher at fundraisers and social events and is impressed by how approachable and available the superintendent is to the community at large.

"You can’t always find out what’s going on from behind your desk," Pfeffer said.

He is also impressed by Belcher's enthusiasm and attitude. The crossroads video was a good mix of reasoned discussion and morale-boosting, Pfeffer said. "It’s a serious message, but it said we’ll have a wang dang doodle, too," he said.

People are expecting a lot of Belcher. Teachers want the district to operate the salary schedule and are concerned about funding for the Career Ladder program, which rewards teachers for their achievements and the extra time they spend outside of their contract hours. Pfeffer wants to see serious thought given to how the district draws the lines for the new high school, which will be in the northeast part of Columbia. Principals such as Boatman want to see the support for their schools continue.

But at least for now, they appear willing to trust Belcher's new leadership. They can tell he loves his job, and they warm to that. 

Back at Benton, Belcher drops in on Susan McClintic's trailer classroom before the two discuss some teachers' association business. McClintic introduces Belcher to her third-graders, helping them sound out the fancy title on his brass name tag. "Su-per-in-ten-dent."

"What does 'superintendent' mean?" G'Quan Jennings asks.

"I'm the big boss," he tells them, sparking a buzz about what it means to be a boss. Somehow, they get it in their heads that just because Belcher has the power to do so, he's about to get rid of one of their other teachers. They crowd around, entreating him: "Don't fire our teacher. Don't fire out teacher. Please."

Belcher's expression turns solemn, his voice serious. He looks down at these anxious 8- and 9-year-olds and takes them seriously, as seriously as he takes anyone else in his new district.

"I won't," he says. The buzzer rings for lunch.

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