By Scott Robertson
Second in a two-part series
The Washington County School System isn’t accustomed to running without Ron Dykes taking part in some capacity. Dykes has been a student, a teacher, or an administrator in the system for most of the last half-century. In last week’s issue of News & Neighbor, we noted the first classroom in which Dykes attended classes is now the Washington County School Board chambers. His office desk is about 50 feet from where his first desk as a student was.
In his last few months in office, as Dykes prepared to make way for Kimber Halliburton, the incoming director of schools, he agreed to share with News & Neighbor some of the lessons he has learned over a lifetime in education.
“Nothing trumps competence,” Dykes said, “but a close second is trust.” To that end, even his detractors would agree that Dykes is one of the most genuinely respectful and courteous public servants you’d ever meet. His first statement at any public meeting is a statement of gratitude for the opportunity to address the gathering. He does not engage in heated conversations in public, and he does not show up the opposition.
“There’s nothing more important than sharing ideas in a respectful exchange,” Dykes told News & Neighbor. “Very little is accomplished generally, outside of headlines above the fold, by being constantly adversarial. You can make a comment or present a philosophy that is diametrically opposed to the one on the table in a respectful manner that would at least cause the other side to consider or ponder, to think along a different path than they ever have.”
The fact that this approach has garnered respect and appreciation from some who have opposed him on issues is not lost on Dykes, but, he said, the goal isn’t to make himself more popular. It’s to make it easier to get things done for the students. “It’s truly about being a proper ambassador for the organization you represent. I am cognizant of the fact that the world might perceive Washington County Schools based on a perception of how I come across. So I am deliberate in choosing words that are as succinct as possible and are extremely informative.”
The focus on what’s best for the students must inform every action the director takes, Dykes said, not just his or her choice of words. For instance, Dykes said, “Every question, every statement of mission and vision that surfaces, has to begin with the ultimate question: what’s best for the student? How will what we’re getting ready to do affect the outcome in a positive fashion for the student? If that’s not at the core of every discussion, then you lose sight of the priority. The main priority is to prepare these students to their fullest potential and in today’s world, making them ready for college or career. That, short-term, is the goal. But every new objective has to begin with that goal in mind.”
Once you do that, Dykes said, “it simply comes down to putting your best minds together to develop a plan of action, trying to determine what are the basic resources needed to carry out that plan, what are the specific expected results, and how you will measure success.”
Once you get all those components, Dykes said, “then it falls back to resources. Those resources might be a room or a building. It might mean more personnel or specific personnel with specialized expertise. It might mean equipment or material. It might mean a new method of instructional delivery. So you have to address all those components, and then you have to look at a dollar amount on each one. You take all that and compare it with your other objectives, and at some point, the dollar amount comes into play because it will not spread over the entire mechanism. So you either have to develop a strategy or sell a rationale to obtain additional funding, or you begin by rearranging internal priorities and shifting resources.”
And those are only the big discussions about broad philosophical issues and grand funding and implementation schemes. In fact, if Dykes has learned anything, it’s how to multi-task. “This job,” he said, “is like handling an industrialized laser every single day trying to cut a precious diamond while at the same time, riding a brahma bull and drinking from a fire hydrant.”
Hyperbole? Consider that in addition to the duties already noted, the director’s position also includes the following responsibilities:
• Constantly increase the security and ensure the safety of every facility. Maintain a crisis manual. Engaged in training with the TBI, the FBI, the US Marshal Service and the Sheriff’s Department.
• Maintain responsibility for a $63-$64 million budget. When you throw federal projects in, that’s right at $70 million. Monitor expenditures weekly. Insure there is enough fund balance to take care of facility needs and catastrophic needs that may crop up.
• Constantly update the curriculum. Determine whether the system is using the right methodologies, what is the educational philosophy, and what’s the best method for delivering the standards to the students?
• Constantly read data. The system has progress monitoring software to show efficiency of methodology.
• Be a human resources manager for a company with 1,350 employees.
• Address student disciplinary issues. The safety of every other student is involved when one student becomes a serious issue.
• Be a facilities manager. The system has almost 20 buildings.
• Be a transportation manager. Each day the system puts around 3,000 miles on just shy of 110 buses.
• Help run a foundation.
• Oversee grant applications.
• Respond to state inquiries of all sorts.
• Stay up to date on civil rights law.
• Work with business and higher education leaders on workforce readiness efforts
• And in spare time, attend sporting events and school theater and music performances.
Every bit of that comes back, Dykes said, to giving the students the best chance to succeed. “Being the chief advocates for the students of Washington County,” Dykes said. “That is our business.”