Reworked leadership team keeps Korpak at helm by delegating duties

Board looks to capitalize on ‘absolute strengths’

Superintendent M. Scott Korpak and Deputy Superintendent Liz Cotter, who shares some of Korpak’s duties under the new leadership restructure

The near-resignation of district Superintendent M. Scott Korpak has prompted a leadership restructure that not only will keep him in the position he has held for six years, but could serve as a model to other districts.

The Northview Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously on Feb. 25 to approve the restructure, which will be implemented in phases through Aug. 1.

The restructure means Korpak will remain full-time superintendent capped at 40 hours per week, and will concentrate on communication and strategic initiatives. His salary will be reduced to align with his redefined role, he said.

Other parts of Korpak’s daily duties — such as human resources, family engagement, development of programs and partnerships, and “whole child” services — will be formally divided among current members of the leadership team. A chief learning officer position in charge of curriculum will be created.

“I think this is a model businesses use all the time: delegate out and keep people where their absolute strengths are,” said Board of Education President Doug LaFleur.

The role of Liz Cotter, director of people, organization and accreditation, had formerly included leading curriculum and human resources. She was appointed to serve as the interim deputy superintendent this winter, and will continue to be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the school district.

“One of the key components of the restructure is it can’t just be helpful for me. It has to be good for the organization,” Korpak said. “This is a way to better position all of us. We really need to have one person who can be representative for the whole district in each of those efforts.”

The sticker on Korpak’s laptop and the back of his car reflect his ‘minimum bark’ leadership style

A ‘Jolt to the System’

Korpak sent a letter to the school board in December, letting them know he planned to step down at the end of the school year. “Because of chronic physical health issues that have become more problematic over the last couple of months, I am no longer able to maintain the typical schedule of a Superintendent,” he wrote.

LaFleur called it “a real jolt to the system” to what the board considered a smooth-running district that was reaping the benefits of Korpak’s leadership.

LaFleur said board members were unified in finding a way to keep Korpak at the helm, and that he “couldn’t be more thrilled” that Korpak has worked with district leaders to come up with a creative solution.

Indeed, when LaFleur spoke of Korpak’s contributions, he noted several areas where Korpak has played a key role, such as curriculum alignment, career exploration for students, the creation of an environmental science program, and the development along with a team of administrators of standards for setting district priorities.

“(Korpak) is an exceptional strategic thinker,” LaFleur said. “All the pieces were in place, and it’s so hard to get all those things aligned. I’ve been on the board 12 years now, and this is a fun time to see the needle being moved like it has been.”

More Integrated Leadership

Korpak said the board and district leadership team looked at a number of resources in restructuring duties, including the business strategy book Rocket Fuel, and Australia-based Agile Schools, which aims to help educational leaders navigate change.

Cotter said she’s enthusiastic about the restructure, even if it means she was tested plenty of times already being the one to awaken at 4:30 a.m. to decide about snow days.

“It’s fun to think about how we can do things differently, and I think that in approaching leadership structures, especially in schools where they are very complex, a model like this really becomes more realistic and progressive,” she said.

‘One of the key components of the restructure is it can’t just be helpful for me. It has to be good for the organization.’ — Superintendent Scott Korpak

Cotter is in her third year with the district. She previously was assistant principal at Forest Hills Central High School, and a high school social studies teacher at Northview. Before that, she was an attorney with a Chicago law firm.

“Our jobs are not getting easier,” Cotter said. “(Korpak) has done a really thoughtful job in reimagining traditional hierarchy and replacing it with a system of people who each have their specialty areas, but all have to operate with one another, instead of just a top-down approach. It’s much more integrated.”

Korpak said that even five years ago, his and many others’ job responsibilities were fewer. “Especially with fewer funds, what we have done over the years is just added tasks to people, and that’s not sustainable for the long term,” he said.

Perhaps, Korpak said, that’s part of what’s driving good people away from education, from teachers to administrators.

“Here’s our opportunity to try to approach this differently, and if the leaders are functioning better, they can be better leaders to teachers, who can be better teachers and improve opportunities for our students.”

Super-heroes, not Superhuman

Korpak said it has been common for him while at Northview to attend evening school events at least three nights a week after an already full day. “Physically, I just couldn’t continue,” he said.

Retired Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent David Britten knows how taxing it can be at the helm of a school district.

Britten said it’s become a given that K-12 superintendents traditionally play many roles. Visibility throughout the district, which means evenings and weekends, is often a priority for many superintendents, he said — and it can take a toll.

“For me, there was no separation between work and the rest of my life; it was all intertwined,” said Britten said, who retired in 2017. “That’s not always the healthiest. I came from 22 years of Army service, where your life is the career you’re in.”

The ultra-marathon runner said interacting with staff and students wasn’t stressful for him, even if it was time-consuming. But at one time, his title was superintendent and principal of the high school and middle school, in addition to heading that district’s adult education program. “And I was performing most of the curriculum duties,” he recalled.

“The internal stress on your body builds up,” Britten said. “In my last two years (as superintendent) I visited my doctor more than I ever have. Heart issues, vertigo, I was even hospitalized.”

And that stress is ever-present with current funding structure, Britten said: “the growing demands that come from Lansing as the budget gets smaller. … It starts to overwhelm you. The rules change constantly.”

And in the meantime, he said, “A superintendent today doesn’t have any control over the funding, but yet has to manage a balanced budget and make sure kids are achieving every year.”

Employee Support is Key

The leadership restructure at Northview is hoped to manage what is in the district’s power to manage.

“We’ve got a lot of things in the hopper right now, and it will be nice for Scott to have dedicated time to really think about and move them forward,” Cotter said. She mentioned the expansion of Field School and high school career readiness programs.

Korpak said it will also give him time to take a close look at “how do we focus on the experience for our teachers, custodians, our bus drivers. We need to put time, effort and thought into how the organization works to better support our employees.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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