Colo. Superintendent Shares Lessons on Crisis Management
- Expertise: Emergency Management
- Position: Superintendent
- District: Colorado Springs District 11, Colorado
Nicholas Gledich admits he’s a pretty big fan of catchphrases.
The superintendent of Colorado Springs District 11, in Colorado, peppers his discussions about the direction of the district with mantras like “think win-win” and “listen first, talk second, manage by facts.”
The phrases, which he refers to as “guiding principles,” help building leaders and administrators understand his philosophy and make his approach to decisions more transparent, he said.
One of those phrases—”whatever it takes”—took on new meaning in June 2012, when the Waldo Canyon wildfire raged about four miles outside the city, threatening homes and schools in the region. Mr. Gledich led the district’s leaders in a quick and comprehensive response, assembled in a few days. And when a fire threatened a neighboring school system a year later, he mobilized district officials to share their battle-tested strategies with their colleagues there.
Mr. Gledich, 60, worked in the Orange County, Fla., school district from 1977 to 2009 before taking his first superintendent job in Colorado Springs, a 28,000-student district with a view of the Rocky Mountains where 57 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
He worked as an elementary teacher, a principal, a senior director responsible for more than 30 schools, an assistant superintendent for instructional programs, and a chief operations officer before leaving the Florida district.
Along the way, he developed a knack for careful planning and considering multiple courses of action, Mr. Gledich said.
“As a classroom teacher, you are constantly developing your lesson plans and you’re developing your tools that you have to have in place to monitor the success of your lesson plans,” he said. “That’s not too different from what you do as a principal or as a project manager, for that matter.”
When the Waldo Canyon fire first threatened to leap over its containment line and into the district’s boundaries, Mr. Gledich assembled administrators and building leaders, who worked quickly to save student records, attend to the needs of families, and find space for 1,500 firefighters and forest workers to set up shop in school buildings and parking lots.
“He said, ‘Whatever you need, whatever you want, we’re there to help,’ ” said Glenn E. Gustafson, the district’s chief financial officer. “We said, this is big. It’s really going to be bad if it ever comes over that hill. We’ve got to do the right thing by the community.”
As the fire neared the district, dark clouds of smoke hung over the city, building fear in residents and threatening to frighten those who confronted the disaster.
And as Mr. Gledich worked to confront challenges in logistics, personnel, and facilities, he faced the threat of losing his own home.
When emergency workers evacuated the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, where the superintendent and many district families lived, Mr. Gledich and his wife took refuge in a hotel. The hotel was later evacuated, too, as the fire spread. Eventually, the couple camped out at Mr. Gustafson’s home. They later learned that the fire had burned the houses on each side of them, but theirs was still standing.
But Mr. Gledich was more focused on the schools located in the fire’s potential impact zone than on his own home, said school board President LuAnn Long, who was in touch with Mr. Gledich during the crisis.
The superintendent said he grew concerned by the possibility of the fire’s impact early on, even when it wasn’t clear whether the flames would reach the district.
“You could see the smoke in the evenings, sometimes you could even see the fire,” Mr. Gledich said.
“I just asked the question in a cabinet meeting, ‘What could go wrong?’ and the answer was that the fire could go over the canyon and come into the city.”
From Rescue to Recovery
Leaders quickly formed a plan.
Aside from life, the worst loss to the district would be student records, the cabinet determined before quickly securing them. The team also closed buildings and began converting a middle school to a “base camp” for firefighters, who slept in classrooms and staged equipment in the parking lot.
Even though it was summer and classes weren’t in session, the district arranged for families in the evacuated area to meet with counselors at the schools and helped coordinate the distribution of supplies, like toiletries.
The district did not lose any school buildings in the fire. Mr. Gledich still remembers his relief when he entered a brick building in the middle of the fire zone and smelled nothing but air freshener.
But 100 students and about 15 staff members lost their homes.
To ease their loss, the district assembled counseling teams and support groups for families that met in school buildings. Staff members worked to meet the needs of families who lost their belongings and homes, even reprinting damaged and destroyed photos from old yearbooks.
After the school year started, the district used money raised through a relief concert, which was hosted by area organizations, to transport students who had relocated to new attendance zones so they could continue to attend classes in their original schools.
“I realize that we are educators, and our number-one goal is educating students so that we can experience the handshake after 13 years of school,” Mr. Gledich said. “But another goal is making sure we take care of the social and emotional needs of our students.”
As employees of the district implement his “guiding principles,” Mr. Gledich collects examples and posts them online as a way of celebrating people who “create awesome.” One of his favorite examples of the principles in action was teachers who rallied to buy new supplies for their peers whose classroom materials, stored in their garages, went up in smoke.
“What an awesome example,” he said.
A year after the Waldo Canyon fire, a fresh blaze, the Black Forest fire, burned in the hills near the district.
Even before it was clear that Colorado Springs’ schools wouldn’t be threatened by that fire, Mr. Gledich directed his administrative team to call their counterparts in the nearby Academy school district to offer advice and support.
Mr. Gledich and other Colorado Springs leaders helped Academy’s administration solve problems and advised them how to focus their resources to best assist students and their families, said Nanette Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Academy district.
“At every turn where we wondered how to handle something, our finance people, our risk-management people felt that they could call District 11 and ask how they handled things,” she said.
Colorado Springs educators said the superintendent’s careful approach to the fire plan was in keeping with his response to every challenge the district has faced, including enrollment declines.
“He doesn’t leave anything to chance,” board President Long said. “He wants to make sure that he’s very precise in the things that he does. But he also takes people into consideration in all things.”
As a district leader, Mr. Gledich anchors all long-term goals in a business plan, and he works with his administrative team to critically consider approaches to problems as they emerge. He considers both risks and opportunities in every decision, making his thought processes visible and understandable to parents and staff, and motivating others to become involved in solutions, colleagues say.
“Any situation he looks at, he also looks at the opportunity that exists and how to take advantage of it,” said Jason Ter Horst, who oversees a cluster of schools in the district.
Mr. Gledich came into a district that was losing enrollment as families took advantage of Colorado’s broad school choice laws to transfer to other districts or move to charter and private schools. District leaders knew they needed to shut down some schools, a process that is never popular, especially in the neighborhoods most directly affected by the closures.
While the closure decisions were still met with criticism by some, Mr. Gledich “thought win-win” by considering unexpected positive outcomes, Mr. Ter Horst said.
In assessing the district’s existing programs, Mr. Gledich didn’t just look for things to shut down, Mr. Ter Horst said. When district leaders consolidated several vocational and community education programs onto the campus of a former high school, they also added college classes for high school students, which the district lacked.
And when the district opted to close an old elementary school, Mr. Gledich helped negotiate with local beer enthusiasts to open a brewery in the former school building, which has become a fixture of the neighborhood, Mr. Gustafson said.
“That neighborhood has been revitalized,” he said. “It’s busy all the time.”