Superintendent survives turbulent year in Nanaimo

It has been a turbulent first year for Dave Hutchinson, Nanaimo school district's new superintendent.

Dave Hutchinson

Dave Hutchinson

It was a turbulent first year for Dave Hutchinson, Nanaimo school district’s superintendent.

Hutchinson arrived in the Harbour City last summer to a volatile labour situation and teacher job action beginning in September, which had senior staff scrambling to ensure administrators were aware of the numerous Labour Relations Board rulings and that children were adequately supervised.

“We had to hit the ground running,” he said. “It was a challenging year. I wasn’t fully prepared for the extent to which the friction between the BCTF and the ministry affected the day-to-day operations of the district. We made some difficult decisions around field trips and they were controversial. But then we got down to working on what I would call system development.”

Hutchinson’s system development started with strengthening the relationship between the board and senior managers. At his recommendation, trustees embarked on a board development process to help them transition from a management governance model to a strategic governance model, where the board sets broad policies and then hands them to staff to make a reality.

Trustees were spending a lot of time dealing with management matters and they began to somewhat undermine the authority of senior managers, said Hutchinson, creating mistrust.

In addition to a clearer division of roles, the board reduced its committee meeting workload and Hutchinson holds informal meetings once a month, open to all senior managers and trustees, as a way for both parties to check in with one another.

“The purpose is to give trustees an opportunity to be informal with senior management,” he said.

Another key change originating with Hutchinson was creation of a learning services department, which meant adding a deputy superintendent position and making two district principals into assistant superintendents.

“The point there is to ensure the district office has the capacity to deliver the goals that trustees set through the strategic plan,” he said.

As for the strategic plan, Hutchinson said trustees and management made progress with the extensive consultations that took place this spring.

He hopes to have a draft plan ready by November after going back to the public once more in September.

“It’s a long-term plan for continuous improvement,” he said. “The idea is to create a model where no student falls through the cracks.”

Once finalized, the superintendent and trustees will be reviewed semi-annually or annually on how effectively they are following/implementing the plan to ensure that it doesn’t just sit on a shelf collecting dust.

Hutchinson also hopes to get the district involved in a research project next fall.

He said researchers will study the effectiveness of the self-regulated learning model, which teaches children how to solve their own learning challenges, introducing tools such as stationary bikes or swivel chairs that children can use to help calm themselves rather than forcing them to sit still.

“The more you discipline a child, the less capable they are in focusing,” he said. “The self-regulated learning is new and people need to see the science behind it before they buy in.”

Several school districts in B.C. and Ontario are interested and each district will have a demonstration classroom, said Hutchinson.

On top of everything, Hutchinson has also been connecting with key stakeholders in the city, touring schools and meeting with Education Ministry officials.

“I’ve done more this year as a senior leader than I have done in the past 13,” said Hutchinson. “This is one of the best experiences I’ve had as a leader in public education yet because I’m challenged to do a lot of things.”

Jamie Brennan, school board chairman, said Hutchinson’s changes focus on student achievement.

“That is what the public system is all about,” he said. “The superintendent has presented his model for the district and it is one that sets high standards for all employees and we support that.”