Last weekend, I closed the National School Superintendents Association’s (AASA) conference in San Antonio, Texas with remarks on the state of the school superintendency and the need to prepare and sustain the next generation of school district leaders, including individuals reflecting the growing diversity of our school enrollment. We hear or read much about the shortage of teachers and other staff, but school leadership is also facing a critical shortage of candidates — and a dwindling number of people interested in pursuing an equally rewarding and complex profession. Fewer people interested in teaching means fewer teachers seeking principal positions and fewer principals seeking superintendent positions. Since the start of the pandemic, about half of the superintendents from the country’s 500 largest school districts have left their positions, according to research by the ILO Group. Moreover, two-thirds of the women superintendents that left have been replaced by men, widening the gender gap. A 2020 study by AASA found that only 24 percent of superintendents were women, and only eight percent were people of color.
This stands in stark contrast to the enrollment found in our nation’s schools, where more than 51 percent of students are girls, and 50 percent of students are children of color, according to the U.S. Census. Why is this important? Research shows that students of color have better academic outcomes when their districts are led by those who look like them. Moreover, the 2020 study by AASA also found that more than a third of superintendents said they would retire in the next five years — something that has already come to fruition in many cases. Locally, nine of the 22 superintendents in the Questar III BOCES region of Rensselaer, Columbia and Greene counties have left their positions since the start of the pandemic — a number that will grow to 11 by the end of June. Further, only four have remained in the same job since 2015 – and one of these will soon retire. Some of our districts have had several superintendents or interims during this time. As president-elect of AASA, I announced a platform last weekend entitled “Leading in a New Era: New Challenges, New Approaches.” I will use my national profile to prepare and support new and aspiring school district leaders across the country (in addition to supporting our nation’s 13,000 school superintendents). As District Superintendent/CEO of Questar III BOCES, I also coordinate superintendent searches and work closely with local school boards – and support new superintendents with their entry and professional growth.
We recently completed a superintendent search in Catskill Central School District (Melissa Barrow started on February 12). We also launched new searches in Ichabod Crane CSD (Suzanne Guntlow will retire at the end of June) and Taconic Hills CSD (Neil Howard will also retire at the end of June). In total, we have assisted local school boards with nine different searches during the pandemic alone.
Boards of education make important decisions at every meeting, but none is more important than the selection of a superintendent to effectively lead the school community. It is easy to see why. Just consider the ever-expanding and voluminous list of mandates, standards and public expectations that schools face. I am pleased to be part of a team that facilitates this work on behalf of local school boards at no charge. Ultimately, we are selected to serve as a consultant to manage the school board’s approach and process. We do not make any hiring decisions. It is important to plan this process with great care and attention to detail. We often begin by asking school board members to reflect on their expectations for a new superintendent.
Because each school district is unique, each board must consider local circumstances and find a leader who is most appropriate for their needs. We also recommend that boards survey the larger community on the preferred characteristics, greatest needs of the district, and questions respondents would want to ask candidates. The importance of this input cannot be overstated. We share unedited data with boards, who use this feedback to finalize their leadership profiles and recruitment materials, as well as use some of suggested questions during interviews. We also engage a stakeholder group convened by the boards to interview semi-finalists, providing them with data on how each stakeholder rated every candidate’s answer to every question. Participants provide their perspective on each candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, additional questions they would want to ask, and their overall view of the candidate. This data — along with reference checks and other screening information — is then shared with the board, who makes the ultimate decision on finalists to interview or hire. It cannot be stressed enough that this process, approved by individual boards of education, is designed to assist them in making an informed decision. All stakeholder input is taken seriously in their deliberations of this most important decision to hire a new district leader. As we continue our search work locally, I also prepare to focus nationally on helping to prepare and sustain the next generation of superintendents. In many ways, the role has become more difficult and scrutinized, but it is also that has become more important and rewarding when we focus on our core mission and outcomes. This is something we all have a stake in, both locally and across our country.
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