IDAHO FALLS – Fear and doubt are the obstacles to greatness in Chuck Shackett’s world.
The Bonneville Joint School District superintendent – recently named Idaho Association of School Administrators’ 2014 Superintendent of the Year – strives to foster a culture where people aren’t afraid to take risks.
“With all (the district’s) administrators, they have freedom; they have autonomy and freedom to delegate and trust,” Shackett said. “I give them autonomy to do their jobs.”
Shackett’s leadership style involves hiring talented people and getting out of their way.
“You’re free to disagree and bring ideas to the table and talk about the disagreement and the ideas,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, who served on the Bonneville school board for 11 years. “A secret that made our board and superintendent team effective is that when we disagree, we’ve been able to find solutions that take the best of the ideas in front of us and make them work.”
Over the past decade, Bonneville’s enrollment has increased by 40 percent, becoming the state’s fifth-largest district. But student success hasn’t been compromised by growth. Fourteen of the district’s 17 traditional schools (82 percent) earned either four or five stars in the state’s most recent Five Star Ratings report (the two alternative schools each earned one star, while the online school earned two).
If you ask Shackett, Bonneville’s employees are the reason the district shines and, by extension, the reason he won the top superintendent award.
But some argue Shackett doesn’t give himself enough credit. Cloverdale Elementary principal Jeanne Johnson spent 16 years in a neighboring school district, but came to Bonneville two years ago.
“I really wanted to come over here, and a lot of it had to do with Chuck’s leadership and vision,” Johnson said. “He’s just the type of superintendent I wanted to work for.”
He makes sure teachers, principals and students are included in the decision-making process, she said.
“A lot of people in positions of power and authority, at least in my experience, often think they have the best ideas, that they’re the leader and if you follow them they will take you places,” Jonson said. “Chuck’s approach is very different.”
That’s why Johnson nominated him for the IASA Superintendent of the Year Award. Johnson said she was sure Shackett would win, but she had a fight on her hands when she tried to nominated him.
“I really had to twist his arm; I was afraid he was going to say ‘no,’” Johnson said. “I said ‘What happens if I just went ahead and did it?’”
After a little verbal sparring, Johnson softened her approach and got the green light.
Shackett believes it is important for district residents and taxpayers to get their news directly from him, rather than a spokesperson (it’s a tactic Horman said board members have encouraged).
As a result, he’s the one most often granting news interviews.
He’s active in Kiwanis and the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce and speaks regularly at community meetings and Rotary club functions. .
“Chuck excels at really being CEO and chief information officer,” Horman said.
Shackett didn’t always have the confidence he exhibits today. As a young student growing in Lancaster, Calif., he worried that he wasn’t smart enough, and he wasn’t immediately sure what he wanted to do with life.
In sixth grade, that changed dramatically. A teacher inspired Shackett, who began to believe in himself, and felt smart for the fist time. It was then that the desire to become a teacher and reach students of his own in the same way began to take shape.
“I can even remember the day it happened,” Shackett said.
After school, he began his career as a student teacher In Provo, Utah.
More dramatic changes took place there. Over just 10 years he climbed the ranks from high school special education teacher to assistant principal and principal.
“I had to go through the process of ‘can I really be a principal? I don’t know how be principal,’” Shackett said.
Shackett moved to Salt Lake City to work as a principal for four years, then became a superintendent in Shelley before taking the top job in Bonneville.
“I saw the difference between a classroom teacher and a principal, as far as the large influence you can have on the lives of children and families,” Shackett said. “After being a principal for nine years I said ‘I’ve got to make a change,” and felt as superintendent I can have an even bigger inference with a larger spectrum of people.”
Horman said Shackett and the board haven’t always gotten along or agreed, but the secret to success has been the ability to work together to find solutions.
“The longer he has been in the district, the more effective he’s become at the team leadership approach,” she said.
Shackett says his jobs gets easier by the day. He estimated half of the district’s teachers have been hired during his tenure and he’s now as comfortable trusting others as he is trusting himself.
“I don’t have to fear for my job because my board supports me and allows me to be innovative,” Shackett said. “Because I don’t have that fear of failure, I can try all these things.”