FISD Superintendent, Dr. Waldrip – Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

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It isn’t often that a teacher gets the opportunity to sit down for a no-holds-barred hour-long conversation with the superintendent of one of the leading school districts in Texas. After polling friends, family, and coworkers about what they would ask him, I nervously made my way to the Frisco ISD administration building to meet with Dr. Mike Waldrip.

Dr. Mike Waldrip

His office was bare and his stand-up desk hadn’t been connected yet, but he answered all of my questions with a good nature and without hesitation.

I’ve transcribed most of our conversation where we wound ourselves through topics mundane and just controversial enough to know that I should still be able to keep my job with FISD this next year. I divided our conversation into two parts. This article is Part 1 and focused on community and Part 2, to be published next week, will be burning questions from educators.

Without reserve, Frisco ISD is lucky to have Dr. Mike Waldrip as our Superintendent and we wish him the best as he takes the helm.

Lifestyle Frisco:   When I did my research on you, I talked to a lot of people who knew you prior to leaving Frisco. Honestly, everyone likes you. What is your secret?

Dr. Mike Waldrip:   I don’t know about everyone, but it’s good to be here. It may be because I focus on relationships. I like to treat people like family and with respect, then follow up and do what I say I was going to do.

LsF:   Do you have a guilty pleasure?

Dr.MW:   I like to watch MMA fighting. My son kind of got me into it!

LsF:   What’s the last book you read?

Dr.MW:   I actually read a lot of technical articles like from Scientific American and Scientific American Mind more than I read books, but I did just finish The Six Secrets of Change by Michael Fullan. I would absolutely recommend it for leaders. I’ve read several of his books and they all kind of center around change.

LsF:   You were a teacher for 16 years, but when did you know that you wanted to be Superintendent?

Dr.MW:   It was probably when Dr. Reedy hired me here as Assistant Superintendent. As I worked with him and truly  got to see what the job was all about, at that point, I knew that I wanted to be Superintendent.

LsF:   Wait, so how did you get there?

Dr.MW:   I was a teacher, then an assistant principal at a high school, middle school principal, director of secondary instruction, high school principal, assistant superintendent, deputy superintendent, and finally Superintendent.

LsF:   That’s a lot.

Dr.MW:   It is a lot. It’s a guy who can’t hold a job. (laughing)

LsF:   So, which one was your favorite?

Dr.MW:   Well, I think all of them in their own way, but I really enjoyed teaching. To this day, I still miss teaching. Just the interacting with students. Recently, I’ve gotten a lot of emails and texts from former students with congratulations notes.  You know this as a teacher… that kind of bond you make with a student lasts. I’ve heard from kids who I haven’t spoken with in 25 years who were basketball players or kids that I taught in the classroom. It’s been very rewarding to hear from them. They didn’t have to contact me. Out of the blue, I had dinner with a former basketball player, his wife, and their kids a few weeks ago. I don’t know… It’s just a good feeling, as a former teacher, to know that kids still follow you and that you had a positive impact on their lives.

LsF:   Who impacts you? Who do you look up to?

Dr.MW:   I have had a lot of mentors. Dr.  Reedy obviously has been very influential in my career. Looking at him and watching him lead the school district through the incredible changes.  A lot of my mentors have been the superintendents and principals that I looked up to as I was teaching and coming up through the ranks. When I was teaching and coaching, there was a principal and superintendent who encouraged me to further my education and go into administration and that’s probably why I did it, thanks to their encouragement. To this day, I talk to them. Brad Barnes, who has since passed, had a tremendous influence on me.

LsF:   As a child I distinctly remember my superintendent and his mantra of service. In our district, with so many campuses and students, what is your vision on how you can impact the lives of each individual child?

Dr.MW:   With 56,000 students and 7,000 employees in FISD, it’s impossible to have a personal connection like that in such a large organization. So, what you have to do is as a group, collectively, impact the organization through a clear vision and shared values. The district has adopted a vision that I very much believe in, and it’s important to continue and emphasize these things and make them a part of what we do. These goals trickle down through the organization.

LsF:   Do you have a personal vision for FISD?

Dr.MW:   Schools need to be a place that teachers and the people that work there enjoy going to every day, and a place where kids want to go and receive a rewarding educational experience. While that might sound overly simplistic, I think that’s what we ultimately want to do. We want kids to get prepared for their next step beyond us and everyone needs to enjoy what they do. We all spend so much time at our jobs, and it is nice when it’s a rewarding, positive experience. This isn’t new. It’s always been my vision. This was my vision as a principal and when I was a teacher. It’s all about having a great experience for the kids in the classroom.

LsF:  So, what does your day to day look like as Superintendent?

Dr.MW:   My whole life is in my calendar. We’re all slaves to email and text messaging, so the start of my day is answering emails and addressing urgent matters through meetings. Meetings are not just with those within the organization, but this past week I have met with city leaders including the city manager and the mayor. A lot of it is perpetually going from meeting to meeting to meeting with high level discussions and decision-making. Sometimes, I feel like everyone around me is doing all the work, and all I do is go to meetings. Everything impacts the classroom either directly or indirectly and that’s what we all have to keep that in mind.

LsF:   What’s the most intimidating thing about being Superintendent in Frisco?

Dr.MW:   It’s exciting to be a part of something like this that is so dynamic. The district changes on a daily basis. I’m not talking in terms of numbers of students, but with things that come down from the state legislatures and things that are going on in the community. It’s in a constant state of flux and it’s having to be able to adapt to that. I don’t know if it’s intimidating, but it’s certainly a big challenge.

It’s fascinating to me that this little bitty rural community from 30 years ago that maybe had 1 or 2 traffic lights is, in the very near future, going to be the 3rd largest school district in north Texas. It speaks well of the people who came before me and have been a part of growing this city. It can be attributed to those who started this community, the city fathers. George Purefoy, the city manager, the council, the mayors, all the people a part of the administration, Dr. Reedy, Dr. Wakeland, and those who came before them, as well as those like Dr. Lyon who have followed in their footsteps. You come into this thing and you’re standing on the shoulder of giants. It’s a very exciting place to be.

LsF:   With so much growth, it seems that the FISD communication department is more important than ever. 

Dr.MW:   Communication is vital. We live in an environment with instant information, literally, from thousands of sources and trying to sort out what’s meaningful and what’s important. We need to try to stay ahead of things when they happen and we need to communicate clearly and effectively with our students, parents, teachers, and community. That is a very challenging piece of what we do and communication is key.

LsF:   With communication being so vital, I cannot help but think of what your perspective was about the TRE and the Priorities-Based Budgeting process that we went through this past year being that you had an outsider perspective. I, personally, feel that there was a lot of misrepresentation and misinformation from outside organizations attempting to influence the vote and process. When you were looking at Frisco and watching what we were going through, I’m just curious what your perspective was.

Dr.MW:   It’s the easiest thing in the world to be an outsider and look in and think “they should have done this or they should have done that.” You can spend so much time on that kind of thing, but in my personal opinion it’s just an exercise in futility. I’m sure there were lessons learned, and I’m not sure yet what all those lessons were. But, being a Saturday morning armchair quarterback is a great place to be. All I know is (and it comes from reading business literature) when you have have a challenge like that, and it doesn’t come out in your favor, you then need to “conduct the autopsy without blame” and move forward.  You can’t look back. You just gotta put your best foot forward and go on.

I know at some future time we’re probably going to need to cross that bridge again. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of input on how to proceed at that time. I think we just move forward and go on and not look back.

LsF:   What do we as citizens need to do to make sure we are informed and staying vigilant regarding school finance?

Dr.MW:   Probably one of the most complex things to understand is school finance. It is ridiculously complex. It’s very difficult as community members and taxpayers to understand why their school taxes increase and the amount they pay each year increases, yet their school district doesn’t receive significantly more money. It’s all rooted in the school finance formulas and how they work.

Basically, the more a community puts into their school system, the more that money goes back to the State of Texas. The State of Texas pulls back in their contribution when a community is able to contribute more money in school tax revenue. That’s one of the most complex things to understand because your common citizen gets their tax bill and they say, “wow, I’m paying more taxes.” Then, when the school district asks to have a tax increase to raise more money, citizen Joe says, “why doesn’t the school have more money because I’m certainly paying more!” What they don’t understand is that most of that tax increase goes back to the State of Texas that the school district never sees. It’s just a funky system.

LsF:   So, we don’t receive as much money as one would think. Are you indirectly telling me that there is not a hot tub in the FISD admin building?

Dr.MW:   Not to my knowledge. Just cubicles and conference rooms. You can walk around if you don’t believe me.