When Dr. Lisa Snyder leaves the position of Superintendent of the Merrill Area Public Schools Friday to take the helm of the much larger Lakeville, MN district, she knows she has left MAPS in far better shape than when she arrived on July 1, 2009.
She said that the greatest legacy she leaves is the way that all stakeholders have become engaged with the ongoing budget problems the district faces as it tries to come up with budget reductions in the face of declining student enrollment. In fact, her ability to bring everyone into the budget process was cited as one of the primary reasons she was selected to take over the Lakeville position.
“This district was run in a more autocratic manner, more top down decision making. We flattened the organization, set up systems and committees to get people involved in the decision making,” Snyder said Monday. “Morale skyrocketed because of that, because people believed that they had a voice because they did have a voice. They were a part of creating action plans for our district that would get the results we wanted. They got to be involved in so many levels through our shared leadership team and working to solve the problems in our district. Everyone has a voice and everyone is heard. That is so important for people to buy into doing things differently; they have to be a part of the process and deciding what that different thing is.”
She said while she is proud of the connections she made in the community, she is proudest of getting the board, administration and the teaching and support staff into a different way of thinking about organizational improvement, “that it is about all of us, not just the leaders.”
Snyder also said that she got the entire district, not just the school board, acting proactively to the challenges facing MAPS in the future, not just reacting to them on an annual basis. This includes taking a hard look at how the district will look in the future as enrollment continues to decline, including the future of some of the schools. This is something that will continue after she is gone.
“Those committees are in place, those processes are there and the board knows those things are a priority. We have to quit reacting; we have to be proactive in our planning. And we have to do that with our eyes wide open and with input from our stakeholders.
Snyder said that several board members have told her that the next full-time superintendent will most likely have many of the same qualities she possesses.
“I’ve had board members tell me ‘now we know what we want; now we know what kind of leader our schools need.’ I do feel that they will look for someone with similar skills that really focuses on engagement, collaboration, community engagement and best practices, what is best for our students,” she said.
Snyder said while there hasn’t been too much turnover among the make-up of the board during her tenure, she has seen those on the board grow into very strong, capable leaders. This is particularly true of Keith Schmelling, who replaced Jeff Verdoorn as board president after the last election.
“He is really focused on what is best for our kids, what’s best for our staff and community. He can really bring the board back to that when they are starting to go in a lot of different directions. He is really good at bringing them back to the root cause of the issue.”
Snyder also feels that the community has gained a greater understanding of the problems the district is facing financially, as well as the causes of those problems. Because of that, and the fact that the administrative team is now much leaner, a slightly different approach to engaging the public on the budget will have to be taken this year.
“Through the budget process this time they are thinking of holding more community listening sessions. And there would be some educational pieces there, some information available for people,” she said. “To go through the whole process, to use the Quality Tools process, we’re probably going to come up with many of the same things that have come up in the past. We’re really down to, do we raise class sizes, do we close schools, or do we eliminate programs?”
Through deliberate planning and staff departures, Snyder leaves a much smaller administrative team in place than when she took over. In addition to administrative leaders and their support staff that have been eliminated, MAPS is about at the smallest leadership team that can effectively lead the district.
“The administration in 2012-13 is going to be one of the leanest administrative teams, if you’re going to do comparables with districts our size,” Snyder said. “So you can’t just keep cutting administrators and expect to have good schools because we know leaders matter. They set the culture, they set the expectations, and they hold the people accountable. You just can’t go without quality leadership.” Another thing that gained her the Lakeville post was how she was able to reopen the lines of communication between MAPS and the general public and the teachers and other staff. This was something she recognized needed to be done as soon as she started in Merrill. This extends to the large number of volunteers in all the district’s schools.
“I’m amazed at the level of volunteerism in our schools, it’s really high. But we can’t expect our volunteers to run our schools. I think we have to continue encouraging volunteerism, but we can’t expect them to replace employees,” Snyder said.
Snyder was so sure she would be staying in MAPS for the long haul when she arrived here that she and her husband bought a house in the area. The thought of seeking a position in Minnesota hadn’t crossed her mind.
“Actually, I never would have bought a house if I had been thinking like that,” she said. “When I came, we were intending to stay. I thought, three hours doesn’t sound that bad to be apart from my family, three-and-a-half for some.”
Still, she ended up missing out on some of the smaller family events, which started to add up. Then her husband had a health concern this spring. Those made her start to reconsider looking to move closer to her family.
“I started thinking about being alone and so far from my support system. That was when Rochester was listed, and that is really what compelled me,” Snyder said. “Here’s an opportunity right by my family, how can I not just throw my name in? That was my compelling, personal reason to go for it.”
Even though she is leaving at the end of the week, Snyder said she knows that the district is in good hands with the school board and administrators it has.
“I truly believe in the people here. I truly believe they see the path that will work for Merrill and they are not going to let that be dismantled,” she said. “I’ve had a number of them say ‘don’t worry; we’re going to stay the course. We’re going to continue down the path that has already brought us so many positive results.'”