Competitive pay and benefits are important in attracting a new superintendent to lead a district. But when districts are trying to keep those leaders, collaborative school board-superintendent relationships and connections with the broader community pay off, according to two district leaders who have stayed in their jobs longer than the national average.
For many years, it was widely thought that superintendents averaged about three years in their roles before moving on to new districts, retiring, or switching careers. The actual average can vary depending on a district’s size and demographics, but is generally five to six years, according to AASA, The School Superintendents Organization, still less than half the amount of time most students spend in school.
But there are some who are beating the average and staying with their districts for several more years, sometimes decades.
Two superintendents who have outlasted the average said in recent interviews that the most important factors that helped them stay in their roles were strong relationships with the local school board and supportive communities they could lean on if relationships with school boards became fraught.
Those relationships have been particularly valuable in recent years as many districts faced backlash over pandemic precautions and policies related to gender and sexuality. A number of school boards with newly conservative majorities—including in Florida and South Carolina—have recently moved swiftly to dismiss superintendents.
There’s little research into how long a superintendent needs to stay on the job to make a noticeable difference in students’ academic achievement. But many district leaders say continuity in the top position helps keep momentum for important initiatives and that stability helps students’ learning.
Nick Polyak has been superintendent of the Leyden High School District near Chicago for the past 10 years, and Chris Gaines has led the school system in Mehlville, Mo., near St. Louis, for the past eight years. Gaines announced last week he plans to retire at the end of the school year.
In recent interviews with EdWeek, the pair discussed three factors that have been key to their longevity.
Collaborative school boards
The most important relationship for superintendents to cultivate is with their bosses: members of the school board that hired them. The relationship doesn’t need to be perfect, and there will inevitably be tension. But overall, it’s critical to have a school board that believes in its superintendent’s abilities, and buys into their vision most of the time, Polyak and Gaines said.
“You’ve really got to make sure that when you take a job, as much as you can, that you’re in alignment with the board, there’s some shared values, and shared ideas of what is possible in the future,” Gaines said. “That can really help with superintendents’ longevity.”
Polyak suggested working with the state school boards association, at least in the first year as superintendent in a new role. The association can usually conduct training sessions for the new superintendent and school board to “help everybody understand what their roles are, how the relationship works, how to establish your norms and communication channels,” said Polyak, whose district enrolls about 3,000 students.
“It can be hard for a superintendent to come in and try to establish those things because those are your bosses,” he said. “The professional organization comes in and facilitates that conversation and says, ‘Okay, we’re gonna make sure you guys get off on the right foot here, so let’s talk about these things and mutually agree about them.’ I think that can be a really positive way to build that relationship.”
Gaines added that his district’s school board has encouraged him to pursue professional development and join national associations for superintendents. That has helped him feel supported and better equipped to lead the district of about 11,000 students.
Each of the three districts Gaines has led had challenges when he arrived, whether low academic achievement or financial troubles, and it was rewarding to work with the community to establish a vision and path forward, he said.
“Taking the time to lay that [vision] out, work with the community to build it, and then show results and progress toward that plan can help with your longevity in a position,” Gaines said.
Superintendents have to do some of the legwork to build trust in whatever community they choose, too, Gaines said.
Whether it’s meeting with the fine arts council or sitting down with a local business group, understanding and appreciating the community outside of school walls help “leaders stay abreast of what’s happening, what’s important, and what’s needed,” Gaines said.
Those relationships can pay dividends if the superintendent’s relationship with the school board falters, Polyak said.
“I would also hope that I have positive relationships built up with parents and community members, elected officials, trustees, the park board, the library, the police, the fire department, and so on, so that if my school board were to start to take a turn in a different direction, those other people would be able and willing to come to the rescue and say, ‘Wait a minute, look at all of these things Nick has done for the students and the community,’” Polyak said.
Recognition that bigger isn’t always best
Every prospective superintendent has different values, goals, and expertise. The challenge is finding a community that is a good fit for those.
Communities all have their own challenges and priorities. Smaller districts might have fewer resources or local organizations to partner with, and their schools need a creative, innovative leader.
Larger cities’ schools might need someone adept at leveraging potential partnerships, and building relationships with many different groups of people.
New superintendents—and those looking to make a move—should take time to assess what’s important to them, both personally and professionally, and whether that aligns with the community they’re considering for a new job. That self-reflection upfront can prevent a mismatch and lead to a longer tenure, Polyak said.
Bigger districts aren’t inherently better, and small districts need strong, dynamic leaders, too, Polyak said.
“So, when you interview with the board of education, they’re interviewing you for the position, but you’re also kind of interviewing them to make sure it’s a good fit,” he said. “I’ve always told people, you might go through a process, and it’s super flattering to have a district want to have you, but you need to be able to take a step back and say, ‘Is this where I want to be, and is your system going to be a good space for me?’”