School & District Management Opinion

The Shrinking Applicant Pool

By Thomas E. Glass — November 08, 2000 16 min read
Fewer and fewer credentialed superintendents are lining up for more and more vacancies in which the pain promises to be greater than the gain.

Nationwide, stories abound about vacant superintendent positions attracting far fewer applicants than in the past. Reports from search consultants, superintendents, school boards, and state agencies point as well to a fast-developing shortage of talented and experienced people eager to take on the top district management post.

Crisis-ridden districts needing “the best and the brightest” are having the greatest difficulty in attracting a high-quality applicant pool. Many who might be expected to apply view these conflict-prone districts as places where a successful and rewarding superintendency is difficult, if not impossible. The not-surprising result is that fewer and fewer superintendent credential-holders are lining up for an increasing number of vacancies in which the pain promises to be greater than the gain.

This most recent educational crisis has emerged just at the moment when school reform has started to focus on leadership. It also comes at a time when most states are jumping on the preparation-standards bandwagon, making training and licensing requirements for principals and superintendents more difficult. The efforts to tighten up may in fact result in even smaller applicant pools.

Why has the superintendency become so unattractive to men and women in the educational trenches? And can anything be done by states and local boards to entice high-quality applicants to existing vacancies? Before proposing policy initiatives designed to answer the second question, we need to be clear about the causes implied in the first. The following 10 reasons for thin applicant pools may not fit every district, but I suspect that, taken together, they offer a general explanation for the nationwide phenomenon:

  • Board-Superintendent Relations. The possibility (if not the probability) of board conflict is perhaps the biggest deterrent today to attracting qualified administrators to the superintendency. In the past, the chief reason given by superintendents for leaving a position was to advance to a larger, better-paying district. Today, board conflict and retirement from the profession have overtaken career advancement as the leading reasons for leaving a superintendency.

Continual education-bashing by the media and public officials has done little in the last decade to persuade good applicants to enter the teaching and administration ranks, and probably has discouraged some community leaders from running for school board positions. Today’s boards seem to be more contentious, possessing fewer long-term members with strong leadership skills and an appreciation for consensus decisionmaking.

  • Compensation. Compensation packages are public information, and many boards try to keep superintendents’ salaries in line with what they perceive to be the public’s acceptance level. Often, this kind of caution operates to drive good candidates to better-paying districts. At other times, it deters well-paid central-office administrators and principals from applying.

Even a $20,000 or $25,000 salary increase may not be attractive to many potential superintendents, owing to the fact that they must move their families, endure many more work evenings, have virtually no job security, be on call 24 hours a day, and take a barrage of criticism from board members, employees, unions, and unhappy community members. For many of these would-be superintendents, more money won’t compensate for the additional pain and hassle.

  • Trailing Spouses. Twenty years ago, a majority of superintendents’ spouses were either teachers or homemakers. This is no longer the case. Probably a majority of applicants have spouses employed in professional positions, and their spouses’ job opportunities are a key consideration in plans to relocate. This problem certainly restricts the number of applicants for the 6,000 rural and small districts, where a spouse seeking a professional position comparable to one left behind in a larger community might find the task daunting.
  • The Search Process. Not only is the search process often an unpleasant, time-consuming experience, it also can be professionally dangerous for employed superintendents. In searches conducted by firms and board associations, applicants usually have to fill out volumes of forms, submit lengthy statements on their governing philosophies, and provide numerous testimonials, transcripts, and résumés. They also are advised to attend national conferences where “pre-interviews” are held.

Typically, a search consultant or committee will select about a dozen applicants to be contacted for a preliminary interview. Perhaps six of these will be recommended for in-district interviews. The local media almost always ferret out the names of these preliminary finalists, who may or may not be invited to interviews. Names and districts of the finalists are usually public information, and quickly become known in a candidate’s district. Board members often are upset when they find their superintendent looking for greener pastures, and working relationships can be seriously damaged.

Some candidates attempt to get around this by asking a respected retired superintendent or university professor to nominate them for the new position. Thus, when the media report that they are in an applicant pool, they can deny applying. This gives the would-be superintendents time to evaluate their chances and decide whether or not to continue.

Making an interview list can lead to a second disaster when interviewing board members visit an applicant’s district. These inquiring board members (and sometimes consultants) often do not get a complete picture of the applicant’s performance. This can happen, for example, when the superintendent in question has had to implement controversial policy decisions. Such an inquiry can easily ruin the superintendent’s working relationship with his or her present board, community, and employee groups.

Candidates in the final interview group spend at least several days, and perhaps as much as two weekends, interviewing with board members, parents, staff members, and community representatives. These high-pressure sessions can turn into long and tiring 12-hour days, and few view them as pleasant or constructive experiences. In short, for an employed superintendent to apply for another position is a serious decision fraught with many possible consequences.

Boards and search consultants must feel that the procedures they are using are appropriate for obtaining a pool of high-quality candidates. Unfortunately, however, the present search-process system is probably reducing the number of effective superintendents who apply for new posts—and scaring away principals and central- office administrators considering the superintendency. Most of today’s searches appear to be headhunting games where one board is trying to steal or entice a superintendent away from another board. Ironically, boards in this way are trying to get superintendents of other districts to put their jobs and reputations at risk in a publicized search process. The declining number of fresh faces in the applicant pool is a core problem of this new crisis.

  • The Community. Current superintendents are very concerned about quality-of-life factors. This generation of superintendents seems to be less intent on district-hopping and financial advancement. While boards have little influence over the quality of life in the district, they should be sensitive to the concern. Yet, seldom do boards in less attractive districts offer additional inducements to attract a qualified applicant pool.
  • The Media. Not only have the news media become intrusive in the superintendent-search process, they also can act as tangible deterrents to high- quality applicants. In pre-interview visits, candidates can find it discouraging to discover that a district with a good board, a good salary schedule, and good opportunity for career advancement is also beset by constantly negative media coverage. Having a district enemy in the local newspaper is not an inducement for potential applicants.

Superintendents’ salaries often do not make it financially practical to live in their districts.

  • Family Concerns. When a superintendent signs a contract, a whole family moves—some members reluctantly. Thus, applicants must consider such potential dilemmas as moving their children from good schools to ones not so good in the next district. Housing, too, can be a serious problem, especially when moving to a district with high housing costs, or to a rural district where adequate housing does not exist. Superintendents’ salaries often do not make it financially practical to live in their districts, even though their boards may require it. In these cases, a superintendent might be moving up the career ladder, but losing ground financially.
  • Retirement Systems. Superintendents’ primary retirement programs are state teacher-retirement systems. Few of these are transportable from state to state. Taking an out-of-state superintendency, thus, will often mean a substantial sacrifice in retirement benefits. Very few districts are wealthy enough to give large annuity contracts to compensate for loss of retirement benefits.
  • Vacancy Notices and Requirements. Many boards unintentionally include criteria on their vacancy notices that discourage applicants. Statements such as “previous superintendent experience desirable,” “doctorate desirable,” and “superintendent experience in comparable district desirable” convey to many applicants that if they don’t meet all the preferred criteria, chances for an interview are slight. Boards and search consultants put such clauses in vacancy notices and then complain about small applicant pools.

Other notices contain high-sounding qualifications that send a message to applicants that only the “educational messiah” is going to be selected. These notices definitely discourage women applicants. Since most women who apply have not been superintendents before, vacancy notices stating that “previous superintendent experience is desirable” are dis-encouraging, if not exclusionary.

Also discouraging to women applicants is the notion (true or not) that an “old boy” network exists, guaranteeing men preference for the good districts. Search firms are believed by many applicants to have stables of candidates who get the best interviews. Many women do not think they will have an equal chance for an attractive superintendency when a male-owned search firm (a substantial number of partners in superintendent-search firms are male former superintendents) is conducting the search. Other typical applicant beliefs are that minority applicants will only get chances at majority-minority districts, and that women will only be offered starter districts, or those passed over by more experienced male superintendents. This is probably not always true, but perceptions discourage potential entrants.

  • Turnover, Buyouts, and Special-Interest Groups. Many superintendents are discovering that the majority board vote they are hired with in April disappears in November, when three or four new board members are elected. It seems to be common practice now for new board majorities to want their own superintendent. This is most likely attributable to the increasing politicization of many boards.
Some boards are expecting applicants to leave secure jobs, sell their houses, and move families to accept a job where, in less than a year, their contract may be bought out by a new board majority.

Today, some boards are expecting applicants to leave secure jobs, sell their houses, and move families to accept a job where, in less than a year, their contract may be bought out by a new board majority. These discarded superintendents may receive a year or two of salary, but they will have houses to sell, families to relocate, and, of course, new searches to complete for replacement jobs. And many times, even though a superintendent’s performance has been exemplary, being bought out in midcontract taints him or her in hiring encounters with other boards. If a district has a history of board conflict, superintendent turnover, or buyouts, it is unlikely that the applicant pool will be deep in number or talent.

Finally, the mushrooming number of special-interest groups vying to influence board decisions has had an effect on applicant pools, especially in districts where contentious social issues loom. A few such groups have been known even to harass a superintendent’s family. Board members often try to insulate themselves from the interest groups by using the superintendent as a shield.

The bottom line is this: Despite the media stories, superintendents do not get fired every 2 ½ years. If this were true, 6,000 superintendent searches would occur yearly. The actual turnover rate for superintendents in most states is usually about 15 percent to 20 percent. What makes superintendent-vacancy rates difficult to explain is the fact that when a superintendent moves to a new district, his or her previous district is left vacant. This round-robin effect is really seen when states offer early-retirement packages.

Despite the media stories, superintendents do not get fired every 2 ½ years.

And, contrary to news stories about constant conflict between boards and superintendents, more than 80 percent of superintendents are yearly evaluated by their boards as being “excellent” or “good.” In addition, superintendent tenure remains at between five and six years. Fewer than 5 percent of superintendents get fired each year.

Presently, many superintendents are sitting tight, retiring, or being very selective about what type of district they might be willing to consider. Less desirable district openings are often being filled by rookies with the best of intentions but little experience, or by applicants unable to secure a position in a more attractive district.

What needs to be done? State boards and local district boards have the power to make working conditions much more favorable for present and future superintendents. Some of these changes require financial resources, but several are merely changes in attitude or behavior. Here are my suggestions:

  • Job Security. Though a majority of superintendents possess multiyear contracts, few have contracts that exceed three years. And most of these are subject to board-option buyouts.

Favorable superintendent-evaluation ratings in the midst of increasing board turnover is sufficient reason for state boards to enact legislation giving superintendents renewable six-year contracts. These contracts might be broken only with the permission of the state department of education. In the event of serious board-superintendent conflict, a mediator might be appointed by the state to make recommendations about terminating the contract.

A reasonable degree of job security is probably the one single action that, if taken, could result in better-quality applicant pools. If the superintendency is going to furnish high-quality leadership in the 21st century, superintendents must have greater job security.

  • Fair Compensation Packages. Superintendent compensation packages are commonly structured along lines of district wealth. Richer districts pay better salaries. Sometimes this is justified, such as when, for example, the superintendent is expected to live in a community with high housing costs. But better salaries in less wealthy, rural, and, especially troubled districts might attract more applicants. State retirement systems’ accepting out-of-state service years also would favorably influence the number of out-of-state applicants.
  • External Evaluation of the Board. An evaluation process accompanying state-required superintendent and board planning efforts could do much to enhance communication and working relationships. Boards that are open and secure enough to undergo external evaluation would send a very positive message to applicants. And a standard superintendent-evaluation form adopted by the state could provide superintendents with fairer and more accurate personal assessments. Many superintendents report that boards do not evaluate them on criteria found in district policy or even in their contracts.
  • Incentives for Prospective Applicants. District financial support and released time for principals to enroll in doctoral programs with accompanying superintendent certification would likely result in more licensed superintendents applying for positions. Presently, in most states, the number of superintendent licenses held greatly outnumbers those actually being used.
  • Professional Development and Satisfaction. Even though superintendents indicate in surveys that they have a reasonably high degree of satisfaction, many would feel much more satisfied if their boards acknowledged their efforts by providing professional-development opportunities. Board members often make statements that they don’t want the superintendent out of the district attending meetings and conferences. A state requirement that superintendents be awarded professional days and funds would encourage new superintendents.
  • Budgets for Central-Office Staff. National studies of the superintendency have historically found that superintendents view lack of time and the burden of unimportant, nagging tasks as serious problems. Many boards are too sensitive to criticism about having too many central-office administrators. Boards could make many superintendents more effective leaders by hiring a sufficient number of district-office staff members.
  • Board Micromanagement. Many boards attempt to micromanage school districts. When this occurs, board members take the reins of decisionmaking away from the superintendent, and a message is passed to staff members that the board really does not trust or respect the professional opinions of those hired to make decisions. This may cause superintendents to withdraw efforts to provide leadership and simply tag along behind the board, hoping to stay out of the way and survive in their jobs for another contract.

Frequently, board members have personal or political agendas with which they attempt to coerce the superintendent. Boards with special-agenda members, many times representing powerful special-interest groups, are prone to internal conflict and suffer constant superintendent turnover. States need to find ways to minimize the increasing politicization of boards.

The crisis in superintendent applicant pools is inextricably linked to how boards and their members relate—to one another, to district employees, and to the community. If these relationships are good, the chances are that the boards also will work well with most superintendents. But it appears that too many current superintendents—and administrators interested in a future superintendency—lack a positive view of these future employers. They do not trust boards to treat them fairly and with professional respect. This view is unfortunate, but it can be reversed by boards’ adhering to ethical and professional standards of practice.

Boards must remember, too, that superintendents are human beings with families who need to be respected, to be treated fairly, and to be provided with the tools and support to do the job expected of them.

If these conditions are met, the current crisis in superintendent applicants will subside, if not disappear.

Thomas E. Glass, a former superintendent, is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Memphis in Memphis, Tenn. He is the lead author of The Study of the American School Superintendency 2000: A Look at the Superintendent in the New Millennium and the author of The 1992 Study of the American School Superintendency: America’s Education Leaders in a Time of Reform, both published by the American Association of School Administrators.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as The Shrinking Applicant Pool


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