Dave Lopez has left the building. The Oklahoma City Public Schools administration building at 900 N Klein, to be exact.
Lopez, 63, retired Friday after spending 10 months as interim superintendent of the state’s largest school district.
During his tenure, the former telephone company executive and commerce secretary reorganized the district’s administrative structure to improve accountability and efficiency; organized the purchase of a new administration building; and created and strengthened partnerships with community leaders to restore trust and confidence in the district. Lopez also had a hand in two key hires: Superintendent Rob Neu and Chief Operating Officer Rod McKinley.
The Oklahoman sat down recently with Lopez to discuss his role with the district.
Q: How useful was your business background?
A: I think it was very useful in the sense that organizations, whether it’s business or nonprofits or an agency or a school district, are still about people. And so those lessons of being able to pull people together on some common goals translate well into education. There are special aspects of education that really does, in the long term, require an educator as superintendent, in my mind.
I would also say the benefit of having a business background is that it kept me focused on success not just being defined by how many kids are graduating, how many kids are going on to college, but it’s also about how many are prepared to enter the workplace where we need them. There can be a lot of fulfillment; that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to have a college degree to find that fulfillment and they can be significant citizens without it. So, that gave me a bit of balance, to try to think about how we try to grow our career academies — a great opportunity for growth for students and for the district.
Q: What needed to be fixed when you came on board?
A: The biggest factor was the human resources organization not reporting to the superintendent. Because any organization is only as good as its people. And so that’s key. But in a people-intensive business like education, it’s 80 percent of our cost. And so that was something that needed my full attention. And we didn’t get it all right since we still have some (teacher) vacancies. There has been a brighter spotlight for more resources now focused on human resources.
Q: Did being a non-educator give you a different perspective than that of an education insider?
A: One thing that was good about not being a traditional educator is that it gave me the opportunity to take chances on looking at things differently and having more of a perspective of an outsider, which is who our customers really are — parents and kids and the community. I think that afforded me to see things that others may have accepted as traditional or ‘that’s the way things are done.’
Q: What were the toughest decisions you made?
A: It was those 5 a.m. decisions to close schools (because of inclement weather). Because so many of our students depend on their nutritional sustenance during the school year with us it was doubly hard not to think of just that we were losing instruction time that we could make up later, but that our students might be hungry that day because we weren’t there to provide them with (breakfast or lunch). And so those were really hard calls. The personnel decisions are always hard, even when it’s selecting someone, because there’s a tough choice to be made. Personnel decisions were probably the toughest part because that’s not just a matter of affecting an organization or institution but people’s lives.
Q: Any regrets?
A: I don’t think I’d say I have regrets, because we learn from our mistakes and I made several. But if I had to do it over with what I know now, I would say I think there would be more time spent with teachers and with principals and in the classroom and less on the administration side. For two reasons: One is that is where the magic happens, and understanding what’s needed there from their perspective is really, really important. The second one is that’s where a leader who cares about kids gets revitalized. You see those young faces, you see students laughing with their teachers, you see that kind of camaraderie and the relationships that are there, it makes you feel good about whatever long hours are involved. So if I had it to do over I would spend a little bit more time in the schools.
Q: Were you expected to streamline the operation?
A: That was one of the missions (the school board) put before me, to see what we could do operationally, and it certainly was more of a comfort factor than knowing the academic side. So I think I focused more on that because there was plenty to do on that end, and then try to not do any damage to the academic side. And then also keep our organization really lean, so that way when a new superintendent was selected that they would have the opportunity to select the people that they would have as their team.
Q: Are you leaving the district in better shape than you found it?
A: I think the community and God’s help have us in a much better place than we were a year ago.
Q: What do you see for the district going forward and what do you think of Rob Neu coming in?
A: Rob is the right person at the right time. He knows education. He has a sense of humor. He has charm. But he has a good backbone. All those things, I think, will be required to sustain him and the team that he’s assembled. And the other part about that is Rob finding Oklahoma City was almost by happenstance. And so those are the kinds of things you sit there and go, ‘OK, is God just smiling on us?’ And I think He is. From that standpoint, Rob has some great ideas coming forward; he’s already developing a strong leadership team, a strong focus on academics — those are all positive points. He recognizes what Oklahoma City can do as a community and embraces that. I think that nothing is going to be instantaneous. There are no shortcuts to excellence. So we need to be patient as we go forward. But I think you’re going to be seeing some signs pretty quickly that this is a new district, and I think within a matter of two to three years, Oklahoma City’s (school district) is going to be seen as a model — not in everything — but certainly it’s going to be seen for dramatic improvement.
Q: What did you learn?
A: What I’ve learned is that we certainly have challenges. But the upside with this district, I think, is huge.
I don’t think I’d say I have regrets because we learn from our mistakes and I made several. But if I had to do it over with what I know now I would say I think there would be more time spent with teachers and with principals and in the classroom and less on the administration side.
He recently retired after spending 10 months as interim superintendent of Oklahoma City public Schools