School & District Management Opinion

Interim Superintendents: Select With Care

By Joseph Sanacore — March 26, 1997 5 min read

Joseph Sanacore is the executive director of the National Center for Improving the Culture of Schools, based in Miller Place, N.Y.

A popular trend in the United States is to appoint an interim superintendent of schools. This transient individual is usually a retired superintendent who provides leadership for a period of four months to a year. Meanwhile, the board of education pursues a permanent replacement.

Not surprisingly, the board and the interim administrator are happy with this arrangement because both seem to benefit. The school district does not have to contribute to the individual’s health insurance or pension plan, and the interim superintendent is able to collect a hefty salary and simultaneously receive (if he or she is a retiree) a substantial pension and benefits package. Although a variety of related issues arise, including the potential for “double dipping,” the key players seem to be comfortable with the interim process.

Regrettably, a major problem with the process is the potentially negative impact that some of the interim superintendents may have on the future of the districts in which they serve. Since these individuals are part of a closely connected group of practicing and retired superintendents, they support one another emphatically. Thus, while serving in the interim capacity, they are savvy in applying subtle pressure on school boards to hire permanent replacements who are part of their inner circle and who, in turn, will support them for a future interim role.

During this transitional period, a board can be especially vulnerable. For example, it may have been unhappy with the previous superintendent and understandably may seek the advice of the interim administrator when selecting the next person to lead the district. My colleagues and I are aware of a substantial number of cases throughout the country where boards unknowingly appointed superintendents who were tightly connected to interim administrators.

In the most recent case, an interim administrator joined the district’s search committee with the ostensible intent of sharing his expertise to help select the best candidate for the superintendency. The board became suspicious when the administrator agreed to attend a rigorous interview process involving several Saturdays and Sundays and when he became emphatic about his support of two candidates. Interestingly, these two individuals had terrible track records, each averaging three years of service in his last two superintendencies. Thus, members of the board discussed their suspicions with colleagues from the candidates’ previous school systems and concluded that these candidates not only were ineffective leaders but also were closely associated with the interim administrator.

Interim superintendents can be helpful to schools if their roles are limited to maintaining stability during transitional periods.

Although an interim chief’s choice of superintendent could be well-matched with a school’s needs, the monopolizing process of the inner circle tends to prevent “fresh blood” from joining the educational landscape. Today’s demographic trends, budgetary crises, and standards initiatives are only a few of the challenges confronting schools. These challenges must be met by innovative superintendents who are up to date and who know how to work cooperatively with administrators, teachers, parents, and school boards in solving today’s complex problems. History has repeatedly taught us that monopolies--including superintendents’ monopolies--notoriously support their own self-serving interests, with little concern for the needs of their consumers. In the context of education, children are our most precious consumers, and teachers are our most essential resources. Collectively, they deserve the best available leadership.

How, then, can schools increase the chances of appointing the best superintendents? While no perfect hiring process exists, the following suggestions provide a reasonable sense of direction:

  • Do not involve interim superintendents in the selection of new superintendents. The word “interim” means temporary, and schools should not permit a temporary administrator to have a major impact on their future.
  • Organize a search committee consisting of representatives from the community, board of education, central office staff, building administrators, teachers, and students. When a variety of perspectives are considered, the potential for politics, nepotism, and other negative influences is lessened.
  • Interview the best candidates whose r‚sum‚s suggest a positive match between their credentials and a school system’s mission. Obviously, the interviews and the r‚sum‚s on which they are based may not match the actual accomplishments of those pursuing the superintendent’s position. Any claims that are made need to be observed and verified firsthand by the search committee. The next step is therefore a vital part of the hiring process.
  • Visit the districts where these candidates are currently employed, with the understanding that the search committee is free to randomly select administrators, teachers, students, and parents for candid discussions about the individuals’ capabilities and demonstrated accomplishments. Pertinent discussions are likely to focus on the candidates’ cooperative efforts to update curricula, enhance staff development, evaluate staff performance, reach out to the community, and respond effectively to overall problem-solving. Equally important is the committee’s savvy in determining the candidates’ “real” motivation for leaving their current positions.
  • Reach consensus about the best individuals, and rank order them based on their potential “fit” in a school system. Invite these women and men back for question-and-answer sessions with the community, faculty, and students. Send them to the school board for final consideration.

Interim superintendents can be helpful to schools if their roles are limited to maintaining stability during transitional periods. Recently, an interim administrator humorously remarked that his primary role is not to cause any “damage” before he leaves. This advice should become sacrosanct as schools independently select superintendents who will help them continue their journey toward determining their own destiny. Otherwise, interim administrators will exacerbate the problem of recycling inept superintendents from one school district to another and of blaming school boards for always being the culprits.

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 1997 edition of Education Week


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