Desert Sands Unified School District’s Superintendent Kelly May-Vollmar and Chief Innovation and Information Officer Tiffany Norton discuss workplace culture with Cajon Valley Union School District’s CTO Jonathon Guertin and Superintendent David Miyashiro.

Apr 12 2024

CoSN2024: Could Poor Relationship Skills Derail School Technology Efforts?

Repairing broken relationships in IT departments is key to success, speakers say.

Are you a K–12 technology leader dedicated to districtwide digital transformation? It helps if the superintendent’s got your back. It also helps if your IT team feels appreciated. That was the consensus of two California-based superintendent-technology leader duos at the CoSN2024 conference in Miami this week.

While planning, buying and deploying technology is important, none of that matters if the IT team tasked with implementing it is fractured, said Superintendent Kelly May-Vollmar and Chief Innovation and Information Officer Tiffany Norton of Desert Sands Unified School District, presenting with Cajon Valley Union School District’s Superintendent David Miyashiro and CTO Jonathon Guertin.

“It’s so important that we develop strong, meaningful relationships with the people who we work with,” May-Vollmar told the room. “And we’re continuing to break down those silos and bring departments together and individuals together so that we can do the very best work for the students we serve.”

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Everybody Wins When Superintendents Uphold IT Policies

Technology leaders should focus on building strong relationships among leaders and among team members, the panelists said. The impact can be seen when siloed IT teams experience resistance to implementing certain initiatives districtwide.

However, administrative support can help dissolve that resistance. For example, Norton said, when her team required two-factor authentication, one director was hesitant to comply. Fortunately, her superintendent — who previously had served as a technology leader — heard the pushback and quickly supported the new policy.

DIG DEEPER: IT leaders say strategic communication supports tech investments.

When it comes to cybersecurity initiatives, IT cannot stand alone. “You really need the work and the voice of everybody in the district in order to be successful on that,” Norton said. “That superintendent is the person who can help pave the way, and I'm super lucky that Kelly sat in the seat before I did. So, she has the knowledge, and my voice is at the table even if I'm not at the table. Kelly is looking at things through that lens so my voice is in the conversation, even if I'm not in the room, which is really, really cool.”

Panelists added that superintendents can’t lend support if they are not aware of what is going on, so good communication among leaders is important. At Cajon Valley Union School District, CTO Guertin said that having a cabinet-level position has greatly improved communication within the administrative team and with school board members because he is able to share his views directly with key decision-makers.

Looking Beyond Technical Skills to People Skills When Hiring

While the superintendent-CTO relationship sets the tone for getting work done, the relationship with the team also matters. The leaders mentioned they have been very intentional about building a positive work culture.

For example, Miyashiro said, when he poached Guertin from a neighboring district 10 years earlier, it wasn’t just because he was keen on enacting digital transformation. While he wanted to take the district from a “technology desert” to a technology oasis, he chose Guertin because of his superior people skills.

DISCOVER: Three keys for creating massive technological change in K–12.

This was important because Cajon Valley is located in San Diego, one of the country’s most expensive metropolitan areas, and district employees are paid about 30 percent less than what they might earn from a neighboring organization.

“We were the least-liked department in the district,” Guertin said. “Nobody would try anything new because they knew they would be shot down, employee morale was low, nobody was happy. Nobody wanted to be here.”

So, naturally, retention was a problem.

Knowing that people spend most of their time at work, Miyashiro and Guertin wanted to transform the work culture in the district, particularly in the IT department.

“John changed the way people perceived IT in our district,” Miyashiro said. “They previously saw it as a source of frustration. You call IT and maybe you get some help. John transformed it overnight so that when you call IT, they actually care.”

Instead of relying on a third-party organization to find qualified candidates, Guertin transformed the hiring process and started looking beyond technical skills. The district needed people who knew how to work as a team but who also had a heart for serving the school community. Because synergy with the existing team was important, he taught his team what to look for in job candidates and had them participate in first-round interviews.

“We spend a lot of time together, so we’re going to have to mentor each other,” he explained. “We’re going to have to have each other’s backs. They are the first line of defense, and we spent time up front making sure that we have the right people.”

Guertin also has a different approach to leadership, he added.

“A big part of our culture is sharing leadership,” he said. “Not only does that apply to hiring, but I did that with how we buy Chromebooks. I don’t decide what Chromebooks we buy, the three people who fix Chromebooks all day get to decide. I lead by asking questions, then help them develop rubrics for the selection process.”

Those tactics worked. Miyashiro, who uses the Gallup Employee Engagement Survey to track employee engagement, has seen an increase over the years. 

RELATED: Three ways to extend the life of Chromebooks.

Rock, Paper, Scissors and Employee Belonging

These top-level changes fostered trust and respect, but building camaraderie and a cohesive team required bringing on the fun. Both districts’ leaders shared that while they spent time on serious activities, such as management retreats and site visits from leaders, they also invested in team-building activities that range from silly competitions (like the Rock, Paper, Scissor championship at Desert Sands that comes with a coveted trophy) to buying food and swag for employees, supporting the local hockey team and scheduling pool parties. This was particularly important for Desert Sands post-pandemic, as the team had become disconnected and tired.

All of these efforts have created a positive work environment in which employees feel they are valued and they belong, and this serves as a crucial backdrop to getting the technology work done.

Join EdTech as we provide written coverage of CoSN2024. Bookmark this page and follow us on the social media platform X @EdTech_K12.

Photography by Taashi Rowe

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