We sat down for a short Q&A with Dr. Sean McDaniel, the new superintendent of OKCPS, after his first Board of Education meeting, which was a work session.
It was a lengthy session, packed with information, as several of his central office team made presentations looking back over the last school year and looking forward to the next.
Free Press reported his selection to the post in an earlier story and his first board meeting:
- OKCPS board chooses new superintendent from the metro
- Board work session gives new supt, members look at OKCPS health
We wanted to get McDaniel’s reactions to the first such public meeting.
Our questions are in boldface. McDaniel’s answers are in regular font. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Questions and answers
FP: You’re a consultant right now, technically. With your consultant’s hat on what are you seeing in general in the district?.
One of the things that spin around in my head is I have not seen anything yet, nor have I heard anybody talk about anything that is absolutely broken.
And that’s really a neat thing because a lot of times people look at something and they think it’s broken. We’ve got to throw it out and put in something new.
What I’m seeing here is you have talented, talented people in this district.
I’ve only been into a couple of schools so far. But, I’m immediately greeted by kids and teachers who are respectful, who are happy to see me. I see it in the parking lots. Every time I pull up here there’s somebody walking through the parking lot and they always come right to me and have a greeting for me.
I mean I think you saw it tonight. You have a lot of depth with our employees here. These two that presented tonight from our staff are as good as it gets.
I’m just telling you, I’ve been around for a while. And, I know they are the faces of teams that are behind them, but just outstanding work. So that’s what I see.
This board has a heart for kids. If you just really listen to their conversation, at the foundation of their comments across the board, you’ll find kids. And man, who can’t get excited about that.
I think it’s a lot of great pieces that are in place. It takes continued focus just continued focus and going back to kids. So, I’m very optimistic.
I’m really excited when I get to work with a team like the people that are in place across the district that I’ve had the good fortune to meet so far.
And then one of the things I’m doing now is trying to get with each board member at a coffee shop or at my office. As I listen to them talk, I just see a lot of people on the same page for the most part. Now it’s just a matter of learning more.
I don’t want to speculate on anything. I’m trying to be someone who can play on this team and really tightening things up. So that’s kind of where I am.
FP: What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had so far after four days on the job?
McDaniel: Honestly, there is a perception that exists out there outside of the school district that this is pretty dysfunctional.
It’s a pleasant surprise where I’m just grinning, going home to tell my wife. These are some unbelievable people — I mean, just talented and gracious.
So, the surprise is, this isn’t anywhere close to being as dysfunctional as a perception that may exist out there says it is.
FP: Is that perception going to be your greatest challenge?
I think there is a handful. I think that’s there, but not the greatest.
As long as our teams — our OKCPS team — is on the same page supporting one another, where we believe in one another and we love each other and we’re all moving together, I don’t give a rip what somebody on the outside thinks.
So as long as we’re doing the right things by each other let’s keep it moving.
We have to acknowledge what’s happening outside. We have to acknowledge outside perception. But, you and I have been around long enough to know that. Sometimes perceptions that develop outside have no basis in fact or truth.
The other great challenge is — you saw it tonight — is we have got to get our achievement and our student success figured out.
Because that is abysmal in some instances. And, not that I’m looking for faults because I’m not. I’m not a fault guy. But, there is accountability to that. And so, we’ve got to figure out how to get that turned around quickly.
So I’d say you’ve got a couple pretty good challenges right there:
Just making sure we are all in this together. That we’re encouraging and uplifting but we’re also doing our jobs. We’re working hard. We’re working every day. We’re working for one another.
And then you’ve got to get this achievement turned around. Two big challenges.
FP: Have you or have you not been surprised by how well-researched these board members are?
So, I’ve had a number of boards and a number board members over the last 16 years. And, you know, everybody has a little different take on their role and their responsibilities as a board member.
You have individuals that have that perception of here’s what I’m supposed to be doing here.
And then, collectively each board is a little different as a whole. So I kind of look at levels of what I would call sophistication.
[Characterizing two different kinds of boards] Am I here just to be a yes board, where if the superintendent says it, we just back him up? Well, yes, let’s just go to the house.
Or, am I asking probing questions because at the end of the day I’m going to have to vote on this. And then I will be held responsible for my vote.
So, you have the two extremes: One is so sophisticated that they get bogged down in the nuts and bolts and details of the decision-making. All the way to the other end, which is the “yes” board. It’s a 20-minute board meeting. Let’s get in. Tell us what you want and then let’s get out.
What I find most beneficial is something that is a little right of center.
We want a sophisticated board that understands the gravity of their decision-making but doesn’t get bogged down in the weeds wanting to become quasi-employees of the district where they’ve got to be at every single meeting and they have to know everything that’s going on.
I don’t know enough about them yet. But what I’m seeing is that they are a little right of center, kind of where I like them to be.
Now, I’ve got to stick around longer. I’ve watched the YouTube videos. I’ve seen some board meetings that I’m kind of giggling thinking, where did that come from?
So, part of that is just me getting to know them and them getting to know me and our mutual expectations that we have on how things are going to roll.
As I talk to them they’ve been very transparent with me. They love kids. They want to do right by kids and teachers. And, every one of them wants to get this thing turned around.
FP: Some people might hear about this meeting tonight and wonder if we had a Chief of Staff tonight just running away with plans for the future. A superintendent in their fourth day doesn’t come in and see a lot of standards being set. Was that what it looked like to you?
I think one of the challenges of a new superintendent coming in is there are things already miles down the road. So I’ve got to come in and figure out a way to plug into the vision that’s already been cast and to the work that’s already been done.
The last thing that a new superintendent — me or anybody else — wants to do is come in and knee-jerk and put things back without appropriately evaluating.
So, right now I’m evaluating. And what I see is good stuff. It makes sense. It’s research-based.
I’m a data-driven guy. So, I know the role of data in decision making. It’s not the all-being, but it does matter.
Now, maybe there’s a difference in terminology.
A lot of people talk about data-driven decision-making and I use the term “data-informed.”
I let it inform me but I don’t always make a decision based solely on the data. So, data-driven decision-making may have a little different connotation where every decision I make is based on data.
That’s not me.
FP: So, what else do you use?
Observation, conversation, experience.
Just because something may have worked — it’s research-based and it’s data-driven — in district X may or may not mean that it’s going to work in district Y.
So, I think it’s a combination. You have to use data to inform along with anecdotal, along with observation, along with conversation, along with the experience from lots of people around the table.
It’s not made in a vacuum. It’s let’s see how this works or how it might work at a school where this decision is going to impact these kids and these teachers in this process.
So, it’s conversational, not heavy on it, because that’s what Rebecca [Kaye] would rightly categorize as anecdotal.
You want to be heavy on data and light on anecdotal, but you have to use both.
So, I’m good. I’m good with everything I’ve seen so far.
What I see is a lot of good thinking. I see a lot of time, a lot of energy spent on doing the right thing. So, I think my role right now is to absorb and begin evaluating: This is good. Is there a way to do it better? How can I plug myself in to help with the outcome? Those are things that I’m studying right now.