You’re a new director—new to the district, new to this professional role or new to both. Now what? School Nutrition asked the participants of its 10th annual Roundtable of Leaders to share their experiences in making the most of this challenging transition. They make it look so easy, don’t they? Those directors, supervisors and managers quoted in the pages of School Nutrition month after month, sharing their creative ideas, best-practice solutions, award-winning innovations. Is that because we’re often reading about them at the height of their professional career, secure in the accomplishments of many years of leadership? But what about when they were newbies? How did they go about putting their own individual stamp on a district’s school meals operation? For its 10th annual Roundtable of Leaders, School Nutrition convened a gathering of “new” directors. Some are new to the role of director—others bring previous director experience to a brand-new district. Some were promoted from within—others traveled miles to a radically different community and environment. Some inherited troubled programs—others are taking on award-winning operations. One’s predecessor is now his boss—another’s is now her employee. How have they navigated this roller-coaster transition thus far? Unfortunately, the available pages in this month’s issue allow us to capture only a fraction of the fascinating insights detailed by our panelists. Be sure to visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent for additional reflections that are sure to prove helpful to those of you daring to take that next professional leap of your own. School Nutrition: Tell us a little bit about how you came to your new position. Tamara Earl: I was assistant supervisor in our department [in Mason City (Ohio) Schools] for 10 years; now, I am going into my fourth year as supervisor. I had been in the district prior to that for three or four years, working in facility scheduling and that sort of thing, but I have a background in food management, so it was a wonderful door opening to have the opportunity to go into the child nutrition department. Randy Herman: I have been in Louisa County, Va., for six years. But I came in as a first-time director, [after 18 years in school nutrition]. It was a huge change, because I came from the Norfolk [Va.] district with 35,000 students to Louisa County with 4,800 students. Marlene Pfeiffer: I started in [Parkway School District in Chesterfield, Mo.,] 14 years ago as regional manager. Prior to that, I was a director for a much smaller district, with just four schools—but my current district has 30 schools with 17,500 students. [From regional manager, I was promoted to dietitian.] About 16-18 months ago, [our current director] decided to retire after 27 years, so I took his position. It’s been a big challenge, but a great honor, too. April Liles: I started as a dietitian in Marion County, Fla.—which is really nowhere in the middle of the state—and worked my way up to coordinator. I’m originally from Boston, and when [my family] wanted a change, we moved [north and I became director in Newton, Mass.,] a very affluent community. The median family income is half-a-million dollars, and we have just 6% free and reduced [of a 15,000 enrollment]. In central Florida, we had about 80% free and reduced and 50-55 schools. So, when you talk about radical, drastic change, not only was it to being a first-time director, it was in a new state and at a new school district that was very, very different. Carol Weekly: I did my internship in a school district, and then I worked in an inner-city school district with 97% free and reduced for five years. I’ve been in Queen Creek, Ariz., for six years, so I went from 97% to 30% free and reduced and very different demographics. It’s a small town, but it’s a growing community, so I’m just trying to keep up with those changes. Barbara Peavler: I’m from Wagoner, Okla., and I’m a six-month new director. Before, I was a manager for the last five years, although I’ve been in foodservice for most of my life. Our director retired after 35 years, and when she retired, she was done. She didn’t want to help [me out]. So, if it wasn’t for SNA, I would probably have already drowned by now. Jim Hemmen: I’m the new director at St. Paul Public Schools, [succeeding SNA President-Elect Jean Ronnei, who was promoted to chief operations officer.] Prior to that, I was the director for five years for [the much-smaller] Roosevelt School District in South Phoenix, Ariz. I did some very progressive things, made great friends like Carol and a few others in the state who supported a guy with a business background, who was a chef who came into school nutrition and tried to be innovative without stepping on people’s toes. I won the FAME Rising Star award a year ago and got a bunch of attention that I wasn’t really looking for. I just wanted to feed children and make a difference in kids’ lives just like everyone in this room. When Jean got promoted, I was encouraged to go after [her former position], so I applied, and the field was pretty tough. I was awarded the job, and I left Arizona on an 82° night, and when I got off the plane, it was 8° below. The next morning, it was 22° below when I went into my new office. … It’s an incredible opportunity. There are about 40,000 children in the community. We’re about 76-78% free and reduced, so it’s totally right for CEP and supper and doing innovative, creative things. The foodie community is one of the strongest I’ve ever seen in the United States. At the end of the day, why did I [make the change]? … How many times in your life are you going to get something like that? I just had to do it. Lydia Martin: I started out in school nutrition in a small district where I had 2,000 students in three schools. Later, I moved to Savannah-Chatham, Ga., where I am now, and became the trainer and later the coordinator. But I wound up leaving that district, and I went to a larger district in Georgia and was a coordinator there for two years. When the Savannah-Chatham director retired, I said, “I have to apply for that just to see what happens. If it’s meant to be, it’ll work out. If not, it wasn’t meant to be.” So, I was there for four years, left for two and now I’m going into my third school year as director there. Marcie Christiansen: I’m from Lake Oswego School District in Oregon, and I’ve been in child nutrition for 22 years. I’ve worked in three different districts in the area. I went from Hillsboro School District, which was about 50% free and reduced, to Lake Oswego from there. They have 10% free and reduced, so that was quite a change. Lake Oswego is an old area, and there’s not much new development around. The buildings are all old and in need of repair, so it’s been a little bit different of a challenge. But I’ve enjoyed it; it’s been good. I’ve been there five years. SN: When you start as the district’s new director, there are a million things that you can or should tackle. How did you assess where you needed to put the most attention first? Martin: The district was struggling and almost outsourced to a management company, so I knew that number one, I had to really get a hold of food costs. Just comparing [against my previous district], Chatham was paying 10 cents more for yogurt and using [more-expensive] shelf-stable juice instead of frozen juice, so in making some of those little [menu and procurement] changes, those pennies really added up. I knew about the high food costs going in; since I had worked in the district previously, a lot of the managers I had worked with were encouraging me to apply for the position, and had been keeping me informed. The other thing I did was look for other revenue sources. We weren’t doing snacks, even though the YMCA had afterschool programs in all of our elementary and some of our middle schools. One of the first things I did was call the Y and ask if I could do the snacks. I looked for grants, too. I won one of the SNF/Walmart Foundation grants for breakfast in the classroom, and I increased breakfast participation by 42% in 23 of my 53 schools. Herman: When I applied for the position, I researched the county. I’m pretty active in our state association, and we had never seen the director for that district at anything, so I didn’t know a whole lot about what was going on there. I learned that things there were done very differently than my other experiences in school nutrition. During my interview, the assistant superintendent said they were actually considering changing the position to part-time. I think my mouth fell open when he said that. I maintained my composure, but I said, “No matter who you hire for this position, I have to tell you that in all of my years of experience, full-time is not enough time to get everything done that you need in this position.” Later, when I was hired, the existing director was still in the county. … The first time I sat down with her, she said, “This is the easiest job I’ve ever had and it pretty much runs itself.” I knew right then that I was in big trouble. I had never been a director, but I had filled many positions, and I knew there was nothing about this program that runs itself. It was very overwhelming in the beginning, because there were just so many things that I knew needed to be different for the program to be successful and to grow. When I was in Norfolk, we had daily turnover. We’d hire people, they’d go in a school and they’d be gone in an hour. This whole year, I had to hire six positions, and those were for people who retired after 33, 35 years. That’s a wonderful thing, because you have good quality people, but on the other hand, they’ve been doing the same thing the same way for 30-something years. I knew there were things that had to be changed to be successful. But I also knew that I needed to go slow with it. I was the outsider, because everyone knows each other. I’m probably the only person in my whole department who isn’t related to someone else. When I went in, I literally made two lists: the things that I needed and wanted to do. I worked on the “needs” first, things that were detrimental and had to be fixed right away. I observed for three months and didn’t make any drastic change until after winter break. I just wanted to be out in the schools; the past director was never out there and visible in the schools, so that was new for my staff to get used to. In January, I made some simple changes to the menu, which immediately met resistance. It was a matter of earning trust and just saying, “I will work with you; give me a chance. If we have issues, we’ll regroup.” And it slowly got there. Weekly: When I came to the district, it had been losing money for probably three years, so I knew some of the concerns. The person I replaced stayed on and is actually one of my cafeteria managers, so it was very difficult coming in and having to make changes and streamline staffing, which is where a lot of the bleeding was occurring. Everybody who touched money [was considered] a cashier and [earning a higher hourly rate than the job required]. That was probably the hardest change— when I had to send those letters out and say, “Really, you’ve been getting paid for the last five years at a level you shouldn’t have been paid at, so as of July 1, you will now make this money and this is what your title is supposed to be.” I thought I would have lost a lot of staff, but they all stayed. [With the former director on staff], I would have to catch myself, because I definitely didn’t want to make her feel bad. Eventually we sat down and had a conversation about some of the things she struggled with that just wasn’t her personality. If she asked someone to do something and they told her no, she would just say OK. If I asked someone to do something and they would tell me no, I would tell them no was not an option. [The biggest challenge is] just trying to get them to understand that, yes, it is different and it is a change, but it’s for the better. Earl: When I became supervisor, we were at about 6% free and reduced, and probably my biggest challenge was that we had been on nutrient standard planning and we were going to have to change to traditional [meal pattern-based menuing]. Truly, all of that created a sea of change, not just for staff, but for families in our district, too. I needed to make sure I had the buy-in of my staff, and that I had the training in place so that they could have confidence in what was coming. I was also looking for ways to grow the program, and one of those goals has been to start breakfast programs. Even though we don’t have a lot of free and reduced, I’m still trying to bring the need for breakfast to everyone’s attention—and create a little bit of a revenue stream. Now we have breakfast programs in all buildings but one. The new regulations imposed a lot of changes; we did suffer—I had a 10% decrease in participation. I was trying very hard to introduce things so that [students and parents] wouldn’t be so surprised. I had this huge, big project that was so exciting; we created our own video, sent out an e-mail, and parents just had to click on the link to show kids how to go through the lunch line and how they had to take a fruit or vegetable. [Editors’ Note: Read more about this project in “Lights, Camera, Lunch!” in the April 2013 issue.] But it was very difficult for me when I would be at open houses, and I would ask parents if they watched the video and they would say no. It just crushed me! In terms of participation, we have recovered enough to say that the total decrease has been about 4.5% in participation, and in the last months of the school year, we leveled out, so I have really high hopes [for SY 2014-15] that we’re going to climb back on top. Hemmen: How do you follow someone who’s been in the business 25 years and who’s been an SNA leader for many years? That’s a tough one. St. Paul has been known as an innovative, creative program for many, many years and one of those that’s continued to lead the way through the regulatory changes. … The list [of achievements] goes on and on. One could stop right there and go, “Whoa, how am I ever going to compete?” One of the conversations that we had at my interview was it wasn’t about competition, but what the program could be when Jean was able to step aside and allow Jim to come with Jim’s portfolio. … One of the things I told my staff was, “I’m not Jean. I moved halfway across the country; it’s cold outside. We’re in this together. We’re going to assess what works. We’re going to solidify the foundation. We’re going to fill in any cracks with some new cement. There are no major changes, just small ones.” So, we’ve been looking at every single thing, every SOP. [For example], I now have a bakery that produces a million muffins a year. I had to go down and look at that operation and ask, “Does it make sense for us to do this? Or is it more cost-effective to go to [a vendor] that does a hundred million muffins a year? Is there a local bakery that’s doing five million that I can outsource to? … We run a logistical company, but we don’t have back stock. They’re baking the same muffin every other day. Why aren’t we baking all day a lemon poppyseed and building an inventory for two weeks like one of our suppliers would do? Those were assessments. That was an SOP. … We’ve been evaluating and building a flowchart to track what we do and why we do what we do. I think it’s important that you ask those questions, but you also need to document it. I report to the former director; she knows more about the operation than I’ll probably know in the next two years. However, she has really taken a step back, and she’s allowing me to do this job. We have conversations reminding each other how we should stay in our own silos and how effective that is. [I can say to her], “You know the board and the ways of the district; you draw the shell around me and you steer the ship and then you let me do what I do best.” I’m the operator, I’m the executor. And that’s my strength. Pfeiffer: Being in the district for 14 years, I [knew the challenges], understood [much of the operation] and my staff knew me, but now I was in a different role. We hired a chef to take my position, [but] it was hard for me to let go of everything I love so much. We did come to the conclusion that he was the chef and I was the dietitian. We would have round and round conversations, but always came out agreeing, eventually. He’s been a lot of fun. And I purposely hired him because he’s so different from me, and that fuels my fire. I like to have that, “Get out of your comfort zone; let’s try this on purpose,” because I like that push on me. It keeps me going in the right direction. We, too, had to get out into the community to sell the chef idea, along with selling the new regs, along with [parents saying] “My kids don’t like the food anymore, what’s going on, what are you guys doing?” I feel that, because [so many of our parents] are affluent, they have time on their hands, so we would get calls all the time. I would often say, “If you have that much time, would you like to come and work for me? It sounds like you have great ideas—enough for three hours to work with me and you’d be right here with your student.” I think my biggest accomplishment [is a project to upgrade our technology]. It caused me to evaluate all of the relationships that are in the school district and how others looked at foodservice. I think for a long time, because the former director did his own thing very well, we were kind of in our bubble. I had to re-establish relationships and say, “No, I need you; I need you to help me with that piece, and we’re all a team.” We did have some staffing issues, a lot of retirements— maybe it was the regs, maybe it was their time, but I’m not really sure. There have been upward of 12-15 people we’ve had to hire over the summer. There have been a lot of changes, but it’s been really exciting. There’s no day that’s the same. I think that’s why I stay in this field, because I don’t want to get bored. I like the challenges. Although there were a couple of times in the first six months that I told my husband, “This is your fault I took this job. You kept saying this is the natural next move; it’s a big opportunity.” I would come home in tears between the challenges with the parents and the CFO, and I’m like, “How do I do everything that I want to accomplish in this year?” Sometimes, I feel like if I’m not doing my job well enough, then maybe this is not for me. [Then I realize] that I just need to stick it out and it will calm down. There’s the help of SNA and other directors in the area, holding your hand and saying, “You can do this; we were there, too.” Earl: Letting go is huge when you’ve been in an existing role [in the department]. I think that was one of my biggest challenges, and it still is. There’s the letting go, trying to train someone else to do what you did while you’re learning a new set of skills. Even though I had so much ownership in the program, I really hadn’t managed the financials at all. So, one of my first goals was to create P&Ls by building, because that hadn’t been done, and I needed to be able to put my finger on the problems. I was so apprehensive that we didn’t have that information at our fingertips, and without the assistance of mentors to help me, [even though I had taken a financial management class with NFSMI, and it was a huge help] I found that there was a void in my knowledge. Since, that has been a huge focus of concentration. I’ve made great strides and have now a lot of confidence in the data and making decisions. That’s one of my biggest accomplishments, but I want to say that trying to get that figured out with those feelings of letting go was tough. Peavler: My six months [in this new position] have gone very fast. … When I first took over as director, the biggest thing was: How do we make our money? I’ve had to reassess the budget, because they’ve been pulling money out of our general fund for a while. And I had to learn about commodities; I did 80% of my commodities with NOI, so I hope that will help us this year. Our superintendent also was thinking about going with a management company and thinking it might be a part-time job. How was this going to be this part-time job!? I work all the time. I’m there in the morning, I’m there in the evening. [One of my biggest challenges is adjusting staffing needs at different sites.] Try to send an employee to another school, and [they don’t want to go] because, “That’s just where they’ve always been. I don’t want to move, these are my pans, these are my carts. I can’t take them with me.” I made all the staff do some activities together, and now they are better about working together. For example, I made them go to a food show. They said, “We’re not going.” I said, “It’s a professional development day and you have to go.” Afterward, one lady who had been with us for a lot of years, says to me in a very gruff voice, “Thank you for making us go. I had a really good time.” It’s been good to get them out of their comfort zone. I literally have jumped in with both feet. I’m doing everything I can. I’m not a local and it’s a small town. Trying to become a part of it has probably been the hardest thing. I don’t ever go in and say, “This is the way we’re going to do it, because I’m the boss.” Instead, I always say, “Maybe we way.” never ask any of them to do something I wouldn’t do myself. Christiansen: I’ve been at my new district for five years, and when I first arrived, they were still using tickets. That was quite interesting, because it’s a very affluent area, but they didn’t have a computer system. They had three-hour staff members coming in the morning; they didn’t even serve breakfast, just sold tickets to kids. They would sit there and sell 20 tickets for three hours. It was a pretty huge waste of labor, so needless to say, the first thing we had to do was cut some positions and do some revamping. The school board and my boss —the CFO—they really trusted me, which felt really good, and they allowed me to buy a computer system and get all of the schools set up in a POS system. It saved us a lot of money and labor, and it really streamlined the operation. It made me feel good that they trusted my ideas enough, because they had to go and take out a loan so I could purchase this technology and we could make this happen. Liles: I’m hearing menu, staffing, passion, and those are things that leaders face. We all are here for that. I didn’t [inherit any] bells or whistles in my district. It was really bad. There were a lot of things that I was doing in my prior job that weren’t being done here. I’m not very patient but I had to have a lot of patience during the assessment process. I did give it several months before I started making changes. One of my mentors told me this a long time ago: “It begins with the menu. It’s all about the food and the people.” So I really spent a lot of time looking at the menu, looking at the products we were getting and at why our participation was suffering. It was about really getting involved and understanding what the parents wanted. That piece doesn’t happen overnight, so time had to be my friend. I spent the first six months pushing away the regulations, the meal patterns and the spreadsheets, knowing that I had to [deal with] those at night or whenever, because I had to be out [in the schools]; I had to know who these people were. That helped build a rapport, which helped the transition process. Then the menu changes come and then the regulations and the training piece come. Spending that time with the team kept them there, and I needed them. We have that mutual respect now and we’ve taken it to the next level, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. It still is, as we all know, a learning experience every day. School Nutrition thanks all the participants of this year’s Roundtable for their candid, thoughtful reflections. Photos by EZ Event Photography. BONUS WEB CONTENT Visit SchoolNutrition.org to access additional reflections from the participants of School Nutrition’s 2014 Roundtable of Leaders. They share what they have learned about themselves in taking on their new roles, resources that have proven invaluable, initial achievements and advice for others starting as a district’s new director. Check out these fascinating and inspiring comments at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine bonuscontent. School Nutrition 2014 Roundtable of Leaders Marcie Christiansen, SNS Food Service Director Lake Oswego School District Lake Oswego, Oregon Tamara Earl, SNS Child Nutrition Supervisor Mason City School District Mason, Ohio James Hemmen Director of Nutrition Services St. Paul Public Schools St. Paul, Minnesota Randy Herman School Nutrition Supervisor Louisa County Public Schools Mineral, Virginia April Liles, RD, SNS Food Service Director Newton School District Newton, Massachusetts Lydia Martin, SNS School Nutrition Director Savannah-Chatham County School District Savannah, Georgia Barbara Peavler Child Nutrition Director Wagoner Public Schools Wagoner, Oklahoma Marlene Pfeiffer, RD, LD Food Service Director Parkway School District Chesterfield, Missouri Carol Weekly, RD, SNS Director of Child Nutrition Queen Creek Unified School District 95 Queen Creek, Arizona
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