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School & District Management

3 Questions to Help Districts Find the Right Superintendent

By Caitlynn Peetz — November 27, 2023 4 min read
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When a superintendent resigns, school boards are tasked with one of the most important jobs in the district: hiring the next leader.

The superintendent sets the tone for the district for, potentially, years to come, and making sure the right person is in the position is no small task.

There’s no agreed-upon best practice for how to conduct a superintendent search. Sometimes, appointing someone from within the district could be the best course of action, while conducting a larger regional or national search is the right call in other circumstances. But regardless of their course of action, experts agree it’s most important that school boards are clear about their priorities and expectations of the new hire and apply those to the search.

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Superintendent turnover has inched up in recent years, as people in the top jobs have faced a steadily growing list of academic challenges, stress, and, occasionally, upheaval as the political composition of school boards shifts. If that elevated turnover persists, it means more districts will need to find a new person for the top job—and decide whether to look internally or nationally for their next leader.

In interviews with Education Week, superintendents and education consultants shared their top three questions school boards should ask throughout a superintendent search.

Is this candidate a good fit for us right now?

The candidate who looks best on paper isn’t the best fit for every community, said Scott Robinson, a retired superintendent from Indiana who now runs a school district-leadership consulting firm.

Different communities have different needs and priorities, so the “best” candidate may look different from district to district, Robinson said.

For example, a district that is recovering from a crisis may be best served by hiring an internal candidate who knows and understands the community. On the other hand, a district that just fired a superintendent for failing to increase student achievement might be more likely to conduct a broader search.

The first step school boards should take when they begin a superintendent search is to take an inventory of their current needs and goals, said Kenny Rodrequez, the superintendent in Grandview, Mo. Being honest about the district’s strengths and weaknesses, and what the community hopes to accomplish under the next superintendent, is important because “clear expectations set everybody up for success,” added Mike Lubelfeld, the superintendent in Highland Park, Ill., and an associate for a superintendent search firm.

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“Whether they promote from within or not, if they have their ducks in a row about what it will mean for that person to be successful, any search process can yield a successful result.”

Are leaders being realistic?

When a district begins a superintendent search, particularly if it has recently faced significant challenges or had a strained relationship with the outgoing leader, it can be tempting to be influenced by the “shiny object effect,” Robinson said.

The school board can get stuck in the mindset that bringing someone new into the district will be the “silver bullet” to all its problems, he said.

“They may have different ideas, but it might not be the right ideas for that district,” Robinson said.

A school board should take several pauses throughout its search process—especially once it has begun conducting interviews and when it has narrowed its candidate pool to a few finalists—to reflect and and ensure the top candidates align with the district’s goals and mission, and aren’t under consideration simply because they’re “new and different,” Robinson said.

What does the community want?

Regardless of the method a district uses to find and hire its next superintendent, it’s important to let the community weigh in and provide feedback, Rodrequez said.

The superintendent is the face of the district, and ensuring the person in that position meshes with the community can be the make-or-break factor in their success.

School boards can host public forums where community members can provide feedback about what’s most important, or districts can launch a survey with specific questions about people’s priorities and preferences, Rodrequez said. The board could then use that information during the interview and selection process to help guide their decisions.

School boards might also consider inviting some community members to participate in small group interviews of finalists and allow them to provide impressions of and feedback about the candidates to the school board or search committee, Rodrequez said.

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That work also benefits the candidates for the position, he added. It’s important that the candidate also feels as if their values and priorities align with those of the community and that they know it’s mutually a good fit.

“I would say it’s vital,” Rodrequez said. “It may look a little different in different places, but you can’t be successful without clear expectations, so making sure everybody is on the same page is really important.”

As districts engage their communities in the superintendent search, finding the right balance between transparency with the public and sharing too much about the candidates and the interview process can be challenging, Robinson said.

In some states, public records laws require districts to disclose the names of people who applied, if requested. Elsewhere, districts only have to name finalists. And in some states, there are no disclosure requirements.

Either way, it’s important to be deliberate, Robinson said. For example, it’s not good practice to “parade every candidate around for examination” because doing so could hurt their relationships with their current districts, especially if they’re not hired, Robinson said.

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