Choosing a great superintendent

Published 1:38am Thursday, October 21, 2010

One of the responsibilities of a school board of education is to select a superintendent, when a vacancy occurs. There are not any federal laws that govern the superintendent’s qualifications or salaries. Alabama’s law requires boards of education to hire certified superintendents and set the salaries and term of office. Many school systems have begun to hire an acting superintendent for up to 120 days. Then, a permanent replacement is named.

Superintendents and principals are the two most visible administrative positions in a school district. The superintendent decides what is good for the students throughout the entire school system. Whereas, the principal’s primary concerns are for his or her particular school.

“What makes a great superintendent?” Research found at listed the signs of an effective superintendent as:

A great superintendent has a clear vision for the district. He or she works with the board of trustees to set the vision, goals and objectives for the district, and then sees to it that the goals are achieved.

A great superintendent is an instructional leader. He or she knows that the most important job of the school district is to make sure students are learning and achieving at high levels. He or she is knowledgeable about the best practices for maximizing student achievement and is supportive of teachers in the district.

A great superintendent is an effective communicator. He or she must make a concerted effort to communicate the needs and accomplishments of the district in a variety of formats: through written reports, communication with the media, public meetings and attendance at school events.

A great superintendent is a good manager. He or she directs the administrators to accomplish the goals of the district, monitors their progress and evaluates their performance.

A great superintendent is a good listener. He or she must listen and take into account differing viewpoints of various constituencies, and then make the best decision.

A great superintendent is not afraid to take risks or make a commitment. An average superintendent might set goals that are either vague or easily achieved but a great superintendent would not be afraid to boldly set goals, and then put the programs and resources in place to achieve those goals.

A great superintendent is flexible. He or she needs to be able to manage the politics of the job – to adapt to new board members, changes in state funding and changes in the school community while not sacrificing the district’s vision. A great superintendent takes a collaborative rather than a confrontational approach.

Interim superintendents are increasing nationwide. A brief well-trained interim superintendent can bring healing and focus to a school system. An interim superintendent who is too bold for his or her particular position can harm morale, erode public confidence in the office, and can worsen a delicate situation. The appointment of an interim superintendent can also bring animosity among inside candidates against outside candidates for the permanent position. Sometimes, this leaves lasting scars and creates conflicts among individuals.

The national average for a superintendent’s contract is three years; however, it is wise to offer some superintendents a two year contract. This minimizes financial losses to the school system, if a contract buyout occurs.

The appointment of a superintendent without seriously interviewing some other applicants places a school system at risk. The favorite son is not always the best choice for the job. A dark horse frequently performs the job admirably.

Gerald Shirley is principal, of the School of Discovery.

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