With superintendent turnover rates on the rise, more and more school boards are charged with replacing their top leaders, a daunting task that can set the tone for the entire district for years to come.
Finding the right person for the superintendency is one of the most important jobs a local school board has, and how they go about finding that person varies.
Some opt to look internally and appoint someone who understands the district and the community.
Others choose to conduct sweeping nationwide searches that cost thousands of dollars, but cast a wider net and can bring in new perspectives and leadership styles.
While there is no universally agreed-upon way to best conduct superintendent searches, education experts agree that, regardless of the method districts use, the most important part of the search is ensuring the school board is clear about what personal and professional qualities are most important in the new hire.
“The most effective search, regardless of which option a board chooses, is one where the board is united on its mission, values, goals, and what they want for the organization under the new superintendent,” said Mike Lubelfeld, the superintendent in Highland, Ill., and an associate for a superintendent search firm. “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.”
Every district faces leadership changes at some point, sometimes multiple times in a decade.
Superintendent turnover rates increased by almost 3 percentage points over the past four years, from 14.2 percent between 2019-20 and 2020-21 to 17.1 percent between 2021-22 and 2022-23, according to recent research.
Sixty-two percent of school districts did not have superintendent turnover across all four of those years, while 33 percent had one superintendent turnover and 5 percent experienced two or more changes in the top job.
Get on the same page about needs, goals
Often, school boards are looking to hire a district leader who is a good communicator, both with the board and the broader school community, and who is able to build positive relationships, said Kenny Rodrequez, the superintendent in Grandview, Mo.
From there, districts’ needs and expectations vary.
A district that has recently gone through a crisis, for example, may be more likely to consider internal candidates, Rodrequez said, whereas one that fired a superintendent for failing to increase student achievement might be more likely to look for candidates elsewhere.
School boards should take inventory of their current situation, needs, and goals before deciding how to approach their superintendent search, he said. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s important to be honest in their reflections, Rodrequez said.
“I think every area has to determine what the best approach is for that district at that time,” Rodrequez said, “and it may be different every time that they hire the next superintendent, but I think the key is determining what is best for that district at that time.”
An internal or more targeted local search for a superintendent is less common, but can be particularly beneficial for districts that saw progress and high morale under the previous superintendent and want to move forward with the same mission and goals, Lubelfeld said.
“If everybody’s marching to the same mission, vision, values, and goals, then they don’t necessarily need a national search,” Lubelfeld said. “If they’ve focused as a team well before there’s a superintendent vacancy and have a strong internal pipeline, they may actually be well-positioned to make that decision.”
The downside is the district misses an opportunity to explore “what else is out there,” Rodrequez said, adding that when he was hired as superintendent in the Grandview district, the board conducted a wide-reaching national search before settling on him.
At first, he was frustrated and felt that the board wasn’t confident in his abilities. But he quickly realized that even though the board had vetted dozens of candidates, they still felt Rodrequez was the best fit for the job. That was also a big plus when explaining the decision to the community, he said—the board did its “due diligence and put a lot of time, effort, and resources” into the search to make “sure they got it right.”
“A lot of people are counting on them to get that right,” Rodrequez said.
The ‘shiny object effect’
On the other hand, school boards committed to doing a national search could be influenced by the “shiny object effect,” said Scott Robinson, a retired superintendent from Indiana who now runs a school district leadership consulting firm.
School boards can get stuck in the mindset that bringing someone new into the district will be the silver bullet to all of its woes, he said.
“Sometimes, what’s thought to be superior talent is just someone who’s from more than 50 miles away,” Robinson said. “They may have different ideas, but it might not be the right ideas for that district.”
As in Grandview, Mo., broad searches—a good faith effort by boards to do their due diligence—often end with an internal hire anyway, or by hiring someone who has some connection to the school district, Robinson said.
That’s because leadership transitions are made easier when the new hire has some level of knowledge or understanding about the district’s unique needs, he said.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with doing a national search and it’s not a waste of time or money if it gets you to the best result, but if that’s the route a board goes and then they find out there’s somebody local who is the right fit, they better be able to go back in that direction,” Robinson said. “Don’t be blinded by the search direction you set—keep all of our options open through to the end.”
He added: “Frankly, there’s nothing more important for the next year, two years, five years, 10 years of a local school district’s ability to maximize its potential than who that leader is and how they’re able to mesh with the context that they inherit.”