By Gigi Wood
IOWA CITY – Stephen Murley began his new position as superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District July 1. He replaced Lane Plugge, who took a chief administrator position with the Green Hills Area Education Agency in Council Bluffs after serving the Iowa City district for 11 years.
Mr. Murley, 44, comes to Iowa City after working for the Wausau, Wis., school district for 11 years, the last five as superintendent.
Before the end of this calendar year, Mr. Murley will oversee the district’s move of its administrative offices from the former Henry Sabin Elementary School facility at 509 S. Dubuque St., to the recently vacated Iowa City Press-Citizen newspaper building at 1725 N. Dodge St. The new location will allow the district to bring its administrative, technology and food services departments under one roof, increasing its efficiency.
Below, he shares his background and his thoughts and priorities for the Iowa City district, especially as it relates to the business community. He said he recognizes the importance of the relationship between the district and local employers.
“If you’re a business owner, you’ve got the needs for employees, so you want that high-skilled workforce, but you’re also recruiting people to come work for you and they (those employees) are parents,” he said. “You want to make sure what you’re bringing them into something (a community) where they will want to stay.”
Q: Can you share with us more about your background?
SM: I was in Wisconsin for the last 17 years and before that I was in Michigan for about 10 years. I’m a career changer. The timeframe I was in Wisconsin, I was an educator and I did everything from teaching and coaching, athletic department administration, building administration, human resources and superintendency work. When I was in Michigan, it was municipal. I worked for city and county governments over there. My undergrad degree is in econ, history and communications. I came out of school not trained as an educator; I went back to school to get my education training.
Q: Why the career change?
SM: I had the opportunity to do some teaching while I was working, in those early days of my career, and I had more fun teaching than I did at my day job. I thought, from a long-term perspective, that might be a more fulfilling and more rewarding opportunity for me.
I decided to quit work, go back to school and got my teaching certification. I was very fortunate. I actually left Michigan and went back to Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and went back to school to get my teaching certification and simultaneously started working for a school district in the athletic department. I taught high school kids. I taught advanced placement economics, microeconomics classes, regular econ and I taught U.S. history.
Q: If you enjoyed teaching, why did you pursue administration?
SM: I think when you are teaching, those people who make the leap into administration often look at it as an opportunity to influence more children. (As a teacher) you have the chance to work with a classroom full of children or perhaps, multiple classrooms, at the high school level. But you probably have five classes of kids, maybe 25 kids in each class. So you have the opportunity to touch (the lives of) 125 kids a year, to reach out and instill in them a love of whatever it is you’re teaching.
When you have the chance to move into a building administrator role, you now have the opportunity, through the teachers in your building, to have contact with far more children, to influence their lives. I think that’s the reason why many people decide to go into the role of administrator. You’re still teaching but now you’re teaching adult learners, rather than teaching children.
Q: Why were you interested in the Iowa City job?
The last district I was in, over the 11 years I was there, we cut about $17 million out of the budget. We had a declining-enrollment school district.
Not only were we unfortunately impacted by the declining enrollment, but then by the same kinds of funding problems that we’re experiencing here in the state (of Iowa). And you spend a lot of time deconstructing programs, whether it was the elimination of elementary school musical, instrumental programs, elementary athletics, middle school athletics and extra curriculars and athletics, high school athletics and extra curriculars, elective classes at the high school level. It’s a process of attrition.
And that was my life for the last 11 years in the last district I was in. The Iowa City Community School District, although facing many of the same financial issues at the state level, is a district that has increasing enrollment. Certainly that helps from a funding standpoint. But it’s also a community that has a high degree of stability, stable and increasing tax base, a huge focus on education, in part because you have the university here, Kirkwood Community College, ACT, Pearson. There’s a general understanding of and encouragement of the K-12 system. So those things were all very, very attractive when looking at this community.
Q: A common topic of conversation in the Corridor business community is STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, as it pertains to developing a skilled workforce. How do you address that as a school district?
SM: We actually had a wonderful meeting (last week) with the University of Iowa and Kirkwood Community College because we would like to see greater opportunities for our students in several specific STEM areas, one of them being in Project Lead the Way, which is an engineering program.
One of the things we’re looking at is having the upper classes taught on the University of Iowa campus. It would allow our faculty to interact with the engineering faculty at the university, so there’s a great professional development opportunity there for our staff. It would allow our students to continue to have access to those classes. We can also partner with Kirkwood, to make sure those kids get dual enrollment credits, applicable to their higher education career, regardless of whether they end up at Kirkwood or the university.
The other thing we’re looking at is making sure we have a good core of science and math classes at the two high schools and an appropriate number of electives so that as students look to expand their knowledge base, they’ve got a wide array of options available to them.
Q: What about partnerships with businesses?
SM: If you look at where some of the unique innovations are going on right now with public education, one of the areas is project-based learning. That often includes interactions with outside business entities, so the projects have a real-world basis to them, but the work that the students are doing is grounded in external reality, not just what happens in schools. I know that several programs that I was working with in Wisconsin, the value was enhanced by partnerships and other experiential experiences students had outside the classroom. So it’s incredibly important that we partner effectively with the business community.
Q: Have you had Iowa City area business leaders come talk to you about their interests or concerns about education?
SM: There are opportunities that I have when I’m out (in the community) to interact with them to talk to them about some of the things that I see as opportunities for public education and some of the challenges they see in how those align. Business people will talk to you about the need to develop soft skills: collaboration, cooperation, the ability to communicate effectively, those are the things we hear frequently when you talk to people from the business community about what they need in new employees. So it’s that opportunity to listen and dialogue with them and where we have the opportunity in non-tested areas to enhance the education that our kids get so they’re ready to go when they get out.
Q: Do you have goals for your new position?
SM: I get asked that a lot and I always remind people that I am a mirror, not a window. My vision is an outgrowth of what the community wants. Nobody knows the schools better than the people who live here. A big part of my job is to interact with the community and to understand from their input the things that they desire, that they would like to put a priority on to move the district forward.
To make sure we really understand that, one of the things we’ll be doing in the fall is beginning a community engagement process, where we gather from many segments of the community their perceptions of the needs and their desire for areas of opportunities for change so that we’re better able to build a model that meets their expectations.
At the same time, having been able to work for many different school districts, in different states, I do have some experiences that I can bring here that I think will help shape that discussion and help encourage some good dialogue about some things we might consider moving forward. One of the joys of living in Iowa is there is a high level of transiency here, so you’ve got a high level of people who come in from the outside with a lot of ideas about things they’ve seen in other places. That community engagement discussion will allow us access to some of those ideas that we wouldn’t otherwise hear and be exposed to.
Q: Did the school board come to you with some top priorities?
SM: They did, and they won’t be a surprise to you because they are things that the district has been facing and districts that are going through growth usually face. Redistricting. Dealing with the recent addition of the Borlaug Elementary School (to be built off Camp Cardinal Boulevard) and the impact that will have, the domino effect it will have on the schools directly adjacent and secondary and tertiary waves as you move out and then planning for subsequent growth at the elementary level.
The one thing they talked to me about, as far as lessons learned from last spring, is the need to not wait another 15 years to address elementary attendance levels, but to keep an eye on them and come back to them on an annual basis with a report that says, “Here’s where we are, here’s where we’re going, here’s the challenges we face and what we need to do to address that.”
Clearly, another one is secondary enrollment. We’ve got a big group that would like to see a third high school and we’ve got a big group that would like to see two high schools and improvements there and there’s certainly quite a bit of space on the continuum between for other alternatives. One of the things we talk a lot about is what’s next for us on the secondary level. So those are two of the biggest issues because they have quite a bit of influence on what’s going on elsewhere in the district.
One more challenge we have is at the junior high level. Right now, when we transfer the kids from Hills to South East Junior High, it will be running at about 95 percent capacity. Right now, both North Central and Northwest junior highs are far less than that, in terms of capacity of use. But North Central is growing very rapidly and realistically, within two to three years, they will have maxed out. They will be at capacity. One of the challenges the district faces within the next two or three years is what to do with junior high enrollment. The likelihood is we’ll have to transfer either an elementary school or a elementary school’s-worth of students at the 7th grade level from North Central to Northwest, because Northwest has the space, is relatively stable at the moment. That’s an issue we’re going to have to tackle in the next year or two.
Q: When are the district administrative offices moving to the former Iowa City Press-Citizen building on North Dodge Street?
SM: We have to be out of here by January. We prefer to be out of here before that. I tell people it’s like moving from a three-story house into a ranch. Right now, what was a great elementary school is not an ideal office space. It’s not efficient, in terms of layout, in terms of the facility, proximity of employees in one department to those in another area or department. Clearly, the Press-Citizen building is designed to be an office building; therefore it’s got a lot of those synergies already built in. This building isn’t big enough for all of our support infrastructure, for example, our technology center isn’t here, it’s down on Clinton Street, by the recycling center. The ability to bring that under one roof is going to be a huge opportunity for us. We’re going to bring our food service leadership and support staff under that roof so they’ll have great proximity to our business office.
We’re moving from a facility that’s 24,000 square feet to one that’s 40,000 square feet. Part of that square footage includes some good warehouse space, so that will certainly provide some support for some programs we have in our physical plant on Riverside Drive. That will be a good opportunity for us as we look to streamline our operation and try to consolidate some of our services. CBJ