It’s not every day the school board president meets the superintendent’s plane at the airport.
But that’s what happened last year when Jonathan Cooper, the superintendent in Mason City, Ohio, returned after interviewing for the top gig in a Fort Collins, Colorado district. Word had trickled out due to that state’s hiring rules—and Cooper’s school board was determined to keep him.
Cooper shrugs, a bit sheepishly. “Boards are willing to go the extra mile. For us, that’s how it was,” he said. “I mean, we had newspapers here with headlines saying, ‘Will the Cooper family be leaving or staying?’”
It’s a small anecdote that gets at how competitive the hiring process has become for top leadership positions.
For all the news stories on staffing challenges for bus drivers, paraprofessionals, and teachers, the pandemic has also taken a toll on the top job in school districts. National surveys indicate that about a quarter of superintendents say they’re at least considering leaving. Actual turnover rates, at least in the nation’s largest districts, match that figure.
It all translates to more districts looking to hire—even as hiring experts say the applicant pools for jobs are thinner than they typically are.
Plus, says George Thompson, the past president and director of strategic initiatives for the Schlechty Center, a Louisville, Ky.-based education leadership nonprofit that runs two networking programs for superintendents, the pandemic seems to be changing the nature of the pipeline itself.
Given the pummeling they’ve gotten over the last two years, seasoned district leaders are warier about jumping to higher-profile—and potentially more troubled—gigs.
“A lot of superintendents are saying, maybe those days of aspiring to be bigger and better are over,” Thompson said. “They’re looking for communities where there is a really good, stable board that’s not turning over based on politics, and a lot of times those are in communities where there’s been less divisiveness.”
The pressures will require school board leaders to think differently about how they hire, and the types of candidates they look at. Here are some of the experts’ broad ideas about how to think differently about the hiring process.
Be clear about what you want.
Board-superintendent relations tend to founder over a few key issues, often the direction and vision of the board. Being clear about those things can help get a pool of applicants more well matched to what board members want.
“Are you going to want someone to create a new vision for the future? Or someone who’s going to lead in the direction of a vision that’s already been established? Often that’s where things go crosswise,” said Thompson. “One thing we worry about is that with all that’s going on with the pandemic, will it accelerate the rush for candidates without that clear thinking?”
Some boards tend to favor either the technical skills of the job, like managing budgets and personnel, while others—usually those that are looking to change direction rather than reinforce a set of beliefs—prefer a more adaptive set of abilities, said Sue Rieke-Smith, the superintendent of the Tigard Tualatin district southwest of Portland, Ore.
Rieke-Smith said both she and board members at the Tigard Tualatin district, which she began leading in 2018, focused during the interview process on questions about student outcomes, which students weren’t performing as expected, and what kinds of changes might need to be made to start seeing progress.
“I had many conversations prior to coming on: When you say you want equity of outcomes, what does that look like? What are you prepared to do?” she said.
Get your own house in order.
Unlike just a few years ago, board drama now unfolds in real time. Zoom recordings and YouTube mean that when meetings go haywire, the entire world can see it in seconds. Potential candidates are watching and deciding whether those are districts they really want to represent.
Take for example, Douglas County, Colo., where a new crop of board members recently fired a well-respected superintendent—and have since been embroiled in a dispute over whether those plans violated sunshine laws. Or Spotsylvania County, Va., where last November several board members voiced support for burning books they’d ordered removed from the library. (The book policy was later rescinded.)
Such incidents have not only captivated the mainstream media, they also point to broader signs of dysfunction on the boards and potentially in the communities, the hiring experts said.
“Prospective superintendent candidates are going on social media and seeing how the board is dealing with these tough issues. While lots of superintendents are quitting and retiring early, more are saying: I’m going to be particular about where I go, and I’m going to vet it really carefully,” said Thompson of the Schlechty Center.
Look beyond the pool of sitting superintendents.
Most board searches start off by trying to find someone who’s already had superintendent experience. But those preferences are not well matched to the current market, said Robert Villanova, a professor and the director of the executive leadership program at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.
Interest in superintendent certification programs at his university has remained strong, Villanova said, despite the clear challenges of the job. On the other hand, seasoned leaders in the state are operating under a devil-you-know logic: They increasingly seem reluctant to leave good—or at least manageable—situations.
“You get fewer superintendents who want to pick up and move from their district,” said Villanova. “I’ve been trying to convince the boards that there are a number of people in the number 2 spot who are completely qualified and certified.”
Such sentiments are echoed by other hiring experts. “We try to say that there’s a lot of really good aspiring superintendents—the assistants and the deputies. They’re hungry, they’re smart, and they’re humble,” said Glenn “Max” McGee, of Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates, a hiring firm that specializes in superintendents.
And don’t overlook strong interim talent, either. Sometimes, newly elected board members feel like they have to come in and begin by changing things. But if a district already has a strong interim superintendent in place—or a deputy who is already well aligned with the board’s vision—why put them through the ringer of a search process?, points out Julia Rafal-Baer, a co-founder of the ILO Group, a women-led education leadership consulting organization.
“It just does such a disservice to the person, and it’s really bad for the community. It puts the community at odds with each other when the most important thing they could be doing is showing unity and that they have a real vision,” she said. “Not enough people are calling out this reality that in this stage of the pandemic, the last thing most communities want is a whole lot of churn.”
Newly minted superintendents do face some unique challenges that board hiring committees should be sensitive to. First-time superintendents often struggle with the complexity of the budgeting process and school board relations in particular, Villanova said. But there’s an opportunity, he added, for boards to be honest about the kinds of support both parties will need to make a new arrangement work.
One of the consistently depressing findings about the superintendency is its incredible gender imbalance: the percent of women leaders rose modestly from 13 percent in 2000 to just 27 percent nearly two decades later, according to surveys from AASA, the School Superintendents’ Association.
Even that progress appears to be slipping during the pandemic, and the fact that many districts continue to put a premium on hiring sitting superintendents means this pattern tends to be self-reinforcing because of how heavily male-dominated the profession is.
Yet women are far overrepresented in the educational administration programs that typically qualify educators for the top chair. (In about half the states, an education administration degree suffices, while in other states, candidates have to get a special superintendent credential.)
In 2018-19, women made up 68 percent of those who received a master’s degree in educational administration and 64 percent of those who earned doctorates, according to federal data.
The last thing most communities want is a whole lot of churn.
When you add it all up, it means there’s a large number of women who are talented, qualified, and even credentialed, but who aren’t in the hiring mix. Fixing that is a challenging structural problem, Rafal-Baer said, but the solutions need to begin with school boards. They can start with steps like asking the hiring firms they contract with to include equal numbers of women candidates, and thinking creatively about contracts that would attract women candidates. And they can make the job more attractive by modeling good governance.
“One of the first reasons we’d find why women were not putting themselves forward for the job was that they had concerns about governance structure, or about how the board was approaching decisionmaking,” she said.
During and after his interviews, Cooper, the Ohio superintendent, found his phone pinging nonstop for days, both from well-wishers in the Centennial State and from colleagues in Ohio urging him to stay. Both jobs were great and came with good benefits. So what, ultimately, was the tipping point?
It wasn’t the contract details or the money; it came down to some last-minute dithering among the Colorado board members that delayed things too long. Cooper chose to stay put in Mason City.
“There needs to be a level of recognition that in in our roles, we can’t just mess around with our careers or burn our bridges,” Cooper said. “Not when you’re in a high-profile position like this. This is a life decision, not a money decision.”
Bottom line: Once you have a great candidate, don’t wait around.
Open your pocketbook.
Ok, while money clearly isn’t everything, it’s not nothing, either.
Hiring experts warn that most boards will have to pay about $20,000 more than they want to spend, and if they want a sitting superintendent they’ll likely pay a premium on top of that. “It’s supply and demand. It’s just basic economics,” said McGee, the hiring expert.
And some recent big-city contracts suggest that new hires are being wooed at least in part by a crop of new or strengthened perks. Sabbaticals, deferred compensation, wellness days, and moving expenses variously crop up in new agreements inked in Oakland, Calif., Los Angeles, and Atlanta.
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Vision, Your House in Order, and an Extra $20K: What It Now Takes to Hire a Superintendent