Brian Harris gets comfortable in District 200's superintendent chair
It was like the first day of school all over again for Brian Harris.
After becoming the new superintendent of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, Harris told his wife how excited he was about attending the first school board meeting of his tenure.
"She said, 'Well, you've been to hundreds of board meetings,' " he recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, but the seat's different.' "
Indeed, the seat is very different for the 45-year-old former area assistant superintendent for St. Charles Unit District 303.
In his old job, Harris supervised three middle school principals, two high school principals and the daily operations of sixth through 12th grade. He also oversaw the human resources department.
Now he shoulders the responsibility of leading District 200, which has more than 13,600 students in 20 schools and serves Wheaton, Warrenville and portions of Carol Stream, Winfield and West Chicago.
Harris recently sat down with the Daily Herald to talk about his new role. Here is an edited version of that conversation:
Q. What was it about the District 200 superintendent position that made it attractive?
A. There's a couple different things. There are significant characteristics that are very similar (between District 200 and District 303). The size is almost identical - 14,000 kids, two comprehensive large high schools. There's four middle schools here and three in St. Charles, and 13 elementary schools here and 12 there.
Also, the communities are very similar with high parent expectations. So the parallel between the two districts, obviously, was very attractive to me.
From a work responsibility level, it's very similar. As I've made the transition, I am having almost identical conversations. Certainly, I'm in a different role now. But I am having the same conversations about where we're headed as a district - both operationally as well as educationally.
Q. What did you do to prepare yourself for the job?
A. I visited every school in the district. I had the opportunity to meet with each principal and had a conversation with them about their school. That was very helpful.
I also was directly involved in hiring four new principals. I was directly involved with the interview process and hiring those new really critical leaders in the district. I appreciated that opportunity.
Outside of that, I had the opportunity to meet with all of the assistant superintendents individually and got a real good feel about where the district is at. I felt very comfortable coming in and being able to start the conversations and move really quickly into the role.
Q. This is your first superintendent job. What's it like making that leap?
A. The responsibility level, clearly, is different. And the expectations are different sitting in that seat. I do believe, though, that I am very prepared and confident in that role. I have had great experiences that have prepared me to be in that responsibility level.
Q. Now that the tentative budget has been released, what are your thoughts on it?
A. It's balanced. That is obviously critical right now in the economic climate that we're in. The board and the administrative staff had some very difficult decisions to make to get it balanced. Those decisions aren't easy, and we're going to work hard to do everything possible to keep it balanced.
The wild card in this whole thing is the state funding. It really makes superintendents and boards really nervous. The (District 200) budget is balanced now assuming we get all of the funding that we're due from the state of Illinois. If revenue streams don't come in as we predict, we've got some challenges.
Q. The amount the state owes District 200 keeps climbing. Right now, it's about $7 million.
A. They just basically don't give it to us. So we have to transfer funds or do some short-term borrowing - different things to be able to make payroll and pay the bills.
Q. Is it your hope the money is forthcoming, or do you think there will come a point where the state will clear its books and not pay the money?
A. Well, they have been talking about that. That, in my opinion, is not a good solution. They need to figure out their revenue and they've got to make a decision. The General Assembly and the governor have to make some decisions here one way or the other. We can't operate for very much longer in this situation, where they say they are going to give us the money and then we don't get it.
Q. Does it look like we will see District 200 make more cuts down the road, or do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?
A. I wish I could tell you that we see a light. At this point, I don't believe there is a light. The state superintendent was pretty blunt in his comments that he does not anticipate things getting better from the state level. So we need to act accordingly at this level. I do anticipate us taking a harder look at our programs and trying to predict our revenue streams moving ahead to the next fiscal year. I think we're poised for another situation. The issue is how much. If it's just a tweak or whether or not it becomes a significant reduction, that we don't know. I know it isn't going to go the other way. I can guarantee we're not going to be seeing huge revenue streams showing up.
Q. What is the biggest challenge going forward?
A. In the short-term, it's making sure that we continue to have a balanced budget - that we don't put the district in a situation where we get into deficit spending. That would not be fiscally responsible. The board doesn't want to go there. I wouldn't recommend it as a superintendent.
The other piece that I really want to pay attention to is that - even though we've got a limited financial situation - we want to move ahead from a curriculum and instruction standpoint. Our community expects great opportunities for their kids. They want them to be prepared to be career and college bound. That's really what it's all about - preparing kids so when they walk across that stage after 13 years in this district, they are ready for whatever they choose to be their next step. I think that's critical. And we absolutely are committed to continue to be the best that we possibly can be.
Q. Is there a particular vision that you have for the district?
A. I think one of the key things is to identify some of those key student achievement targets and then identify programming and instruction and make adjustments and make sure we hit those targets. I am still in that process of working with staff to evaluate what those actually are. I've got some ideas. But at this point, I really haven't had the opportunity to dig into that too much. It certainly is one of the things I'm going to be working on over the next few months.
Q. Being a superintendent includes spending a lot of time in the community. How do you balance that with all of the other responsibilities?
A. I have been in roles like this previously. Obviously, this is a new one, and I understand the expectations of the position. I am committed to my own family, too. With two teenagers, I am very interested in their success as well. But I also am committed to doing what's best for District 200. One of the things during my first year that I need to do is make those connections with all the different community organizations and make sure to build those relationships.
From my perspective, that (meeting people in the community) is the fun part. Being a people person, meeting the kids and the staff and the parents at functions is very appealing to me. I am very comfortable in that role.
Q. How do you plan to communicate with the parents?
A. Obviously, in some type of written communication. But also by showing up at PTA meetings, going to football games and being visible at band concerts, music performances and plays and productions. I enjoy that. To be honest, as a superintendent, that's the payoff.