Leadership Profile: Keith Ballard
Tulsa’s inclusive chief steers his district through a tough transition.
Back in 2011, with Tulsa Public Schools facing massive school closings and a complete district reorganization, Superintendent Keith Ballard had to call upon all the savvy he’d acquired over the course of a 40-year career in education.
Schools across the district were operating well under capacity, and there were glaring inequities in the quality of curriculum and student services. Ballard set out to reorganize the district to better serve all students and improve outcomes—and save $5 million a year in the process. He knew it wouldn’t be easy. The changes he was proposing would affect the entire city and upset families and civic leaders in many neighborhoods.
But now, in just two years, Ballard has gone from occupying the hot seat to being named Tulsan of the Year by TulsaPeople magazine. He credits a combination of objectivity and inclusiveness for his success in shepherding Oklahoma’s second-largest district through a complete overhaul.
“It’s kind of interesting to go back and read all of the news accounts during the consolidation process and what happened afterward,” says Ballard. “It is clear that we weren’t just sitting there blindly putting pins in a map and saying, ‘We’re going to close this or that school.’ We looked at the credible data to make decisions. And we involved everyone.”
Q The “Project Schoolhouse” reorganization closed 14 schools, reconfigured others, and cut costs. What factors did you take into account during the decision-making process?
A First, one ought not to be making decisions without looking at all the data in all areas. Looking at all the data helps you make a much more informed decision and gives credibility to what you are doing. Second, we didn’t look at closing schools through an emotional lens. That’s really important, and it was the underpinning of everything we did—decisions were based on objective factors. That’s what we brought to the process, because in the end, we wanted people to say, “At least it was fair.”
Q Walk us through the process, from start to finish.
A We started with three distinct committees. The first we called “Blue Sky,” consisting of the best thinkers we could find—innovative teachers and administrators from the district. They met every Saturday for at least 12 weeks. They didn’t have any constraints and they discussed what our district would look like if it wasn’t just about closing schools—looking at organizing ourselves for excellence in the best interest of kids. They came up with three scenarios.
Next, we filtered their work through a task force of internal executive staffers headed up by a gifted, strategic-thinking chief of staff. They met every week, discussed the Blue Sky proposals, and filtered them to see what we could and couldn’t do.
Their work was passed on to an oversight committee. This was key because this committee consisted of diverse citizens appointed by the school board and a handful of people I appointed (none of them school personnel). At this point, I said I would not bring any ideas forward that were not approved by the committee. What that said to the community was that it wasn’t just Keith Ballard, or a couple of board members, or a couple of executive staff who were pointing the finger at “my” school.
We then held forums at every high school to get input from the community on the three possible plans. Some people attacked the plans, and some of it was justified. We said, “Okay, that makes sense.” The point is, we truly listened.
I said at the very beginning that I would get all this input and then I would take the heat. I recapped everything for the board and said, “Here’s my plan,” and it was approved 5-2.
Q Why didn’t you participate in any of the committees? Oftentimes these decisions come from the top down, or a district brings in consultants to do the due diligence.
A I purposely took myself off all the committees. It absolutely was by design because it speaks to my basic philosophy about getting input from people. And you are so right about districts hiring consultants to look at it all and make recommendations to the board, and then they try to sell it and get input from the community after the decision—then it becomes an us-versus-them situation.
Q Can you share any lessons learned from Project Schoolhouse?
A I learned that you can make decisions and try to get people to accept them, or you can truly involve people in the process—that’s always better and has been my philosophy.
Q You reconfigured many grade levels at schools to better utilize space and resources, including starting some 7–12 high schools. Have you seen better student outcomes as a result?
A We are all about student achievement. Everything we did at Project Schoolhouse is tied to that. Now we are a performance-based culture and every single department has goals. We are overcoming a lot of factors: closing schools, reorganizing others, moving students and teachers around. And we are an urban district—but there is an expectation that student scores will improve. Tulsa in the near future will show tremendous gains and will be successful. We expect to see improvements.
Q Looking back at the reorganization initiative and where you are today, what goes through your mind?
A It obviously was well accepted—and who would have thought I would be named Tulsan of the Year? Awards are nice and all that, but I’m not talking about it in that respect. Rather, who would have thought that award would be a by-product of what I did? Usually you get fired after you do these things.
Q Were they any downsides to the reorganization?
A I think the downside was that because we moved so many kids and so many teachers, we didn’t show the overall gains in student achievement that I was hoping for last year. That is a by-product of the reorganization, but we now have stability in the district.