How School Boards Choose a Superintendent

by Leslie Reckler | January 17, 2022 | 4 Comments
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A school board’s most important responsibility

The most important responsibility of a school board is to hire and evaluate the superintendent of schools. It’s a crucial position. Finding the right match for your district is important.

What does a school district superintendent do?

Guest Comment
Leslie Reckler

The superintendent of a school district runs the day-to-day operations of the school district and leads the work to achieve the goals set by the school board. It’s an executive role, on most days more similar to running a business than to teaching a class.

Most superintendents schedule time to interact regularly with principals and executive directors as well as project leaders, students, and community members. Those public relationships are important, but the core work of a superintendent is administrative. Successful district superintendents develop good processes to work consistently with the right people in the right jobs with the right skills, focusing on the right data, and building strong relationships.

The core work of a superintendent is administrative

Of course, the role of a superintendent in a very large district can differ significantly from a small district. Some of the state’s smallest districts share a superintendent.

The crisis in superintendency

Even in normal times, the superintendent of schools is a tough job. It’s very rewarding, but incredibly stressful. Cultural, political, staffing and funding challenges contribute to the daily stresses of improving outcomes for kids. Top that off with the neverending COVID-19 marathon of crises and uncertainties, and many communities have reason to worry that superintendent turnover could accelerate. Whatever the reason, a change in leadership presents an opportunity to reassess or reaffirm your district’s priorities and ask important questions:

  • Where is your district on its path to improvement?
  • What does your district value?
  • What do you do well?
  • What do you want to improve?
  • What leadership characteristics are important to drive the change your community desires?

Search firms, attorneys, confidentiality… oh my!

There isn’t just one way to search for a superintendent. The major choices are whether to hire from within the district or to recruit from outside the district.

There may be an experienced associate superintendent in your district who is a natural fit and is ready to assume the top spot. With help from the school district's legal counsel or human resources head, a contract can be written and approved, putting the district quickly on its way to new leadership.

Is the best candidate already on your staff?

Other searches may be more involved and can range from recruiting applicants from outside the district to year-long media-intense national searches involving the creation of multi-member superintendent search subcommittees and public semifinal input processes.

School boards frequently contract with a professional search firm that specializes in recruiting school district personnel to lead the search. Most school board members do not have the skills and background required. They may not have hired a superintendent before or negotiated a multi-year contract or have the legal background necessary.

A professional search firm can help. It can be expensive.

Most boards send out an official Request for Proposal (RFP) and then choose among candidates who answer. The RFP will outline the board’s preferred requirements and will usually request a community engagement process, preparation of a leadership profile and a long list of other activities, such as these:

  • Advertising the opening
  • Developing interview questions
  • Constructing a competitive compensation package
  • Validating a candidate’s qualifications and background checks
  • Developing a timeline to meet a hiring date.

The proposals submitted will highlight the search firm’s expertise and past placements and describe how it intends to meet the district’s needs. A fee for services is included as well. Usually, the fee is presented in a lump sum. Sometimes, a menu of fee-based options is presented instead. There is no set fee for search firms. Depending upon district size and complexity, the cost can range from around $20,000 to more than $150,000 for the state’s largest districts. Most boards will interview the preferred firms in public at a school board meeting and will vote to hire and approve the contract in open session.

The interview process

After the search firm has surveyed and interviewed key stakeholders, it will write a description of the district's needs and strengths in order to advertise the open position. The search firm will then pre-screen applicants for those that best match the district’s needs and assemble a portfolio of candidates to present to the school board.

The board, in a series of properly noticed closed session meetings, will screen resumes and related materials and will select perhaps four to six candidates to attend a first round of interviews. Based on your district’s needs, the search firm will help the board formulate questions for the interview process. Many board members will take additional steps and research candidates beyond search firm-provided dossiers and resumes. Usually there is a wealth of public information that can be reviewed from sources like the California School Dashboard, Ed-Data and DataQuest — all treasure troves of school and district statistics. Facts from these sources can provide information to back up resumes or act as foundations for interview questions.

Do your diligence!

You may even be able to get a feel for a candidate’s operating style. With COVID, many districts streamed, recorded and posted board meetings. Your candidate may have spoken or presented. From this first round of interviews, the board will agree on semifinalists, who will be interviewed again. Then, a finalist is chosen. It is not unusual for candidates to drop out for a variety of reasons including other opportunities or second thoughts.

What if you need more time?

A board is not required to hire a permanent superintendent immediately. Sometimes the timing doesn’t work in a board’s favor or the candidate pool does not include a strong front-runner. The board may decide to hire an interim superintendent on a short-term basis in order to provide time for a more lengthy search process.

Balancing candidate confidentiality with community transparency

It can be difficult to balance a candidate’s desire for confidentiality with a community’s desire for transparency. Candidates may not be ready to signal to a current employer that they are ready to explore another opportunity. On the other hand, the board may want to be transparent with the community and receive affirmation of its decisions and processes as they move through the timeline.

Some boards will publicly announce semifinalists or invite the community to be a part of the semifinalist interview process. Some boards will keep the process strictly confidential until the public ratification of the contract. Whatever your board decides, it is important that the search firm, the candidates and board agree up front to the terms of confidentiality or publicity and abide strictly by those agreements.

Should student trustees participate?

Students should be strongly involved in this important hiring decision and included in some parts of the interview process. Interviews normally occur confidentially in closed sessions, and students must possess adult levels of maturity. Your search firm can help to find an avenue appropriate for student participation. Our student trustees were fully included in the first round of closed session interviews and were debriefed afterward. Their comments were thoughtful and showed understanding beyond their years.

Behind closed doors. Choosing the finalist.

There’s no set way for a board to choose a finalist. Most are likely to conduct a straw poll to check for board member preferences. If all board members agree on a single candidate, the decision is probably close to done, and the body can move on to informing the finalist, expect an initial acceptance and move into the contract negotiation phase.

In some cases, reaching consensus can be hard. Board members will need to go through a process of elimination and compromise, or get specific questions answered to address particular concerns. Sometimes a simple majority is the best a board can do, but it is essential to give the new leader the benefit of unanimous support. The superintendent and school board act as a governance team, and the strength of the board-superintendent relationship is important. The longer a superintendent stays in a district, the better students perform.

The contract

Although not required by law, you’d be hard-pressed to find a superintendent working without a detailed written employment contract. These are complex, high-profile positions. Superintendents will eventually make extremely unpopular decisions such as eliminating programs, laying off staff or closing schools. School board drama is legendary.

A board can fire a superintendent almost on a whim. But…

An election might usher in new members, and with it, an adverse change in board-superintendent relationships. Since a superintendent can be fired by a school board almost at their whim, the contract provides some guarantees of employment should the road become bumpy.

The search firm, the district’s business office and human resources heads as well as your district’s lawyer are resources that might help with the superintendent’s contract. They might present a hiring budget, and competitive salary and benefits data to set a compensation package. Your district’s lawyer might write up the terms and conditions of the employment contract including the contract’s length, days worked per year, benefits and conditions surrounding termination.

By law, the contract must be voted on by the board of education at a regularly-scheduled open session meeting with proper notice. Certain provisions of the contract are dictated by law as well. For example, the contract can be no longer than four years in length, and payouts for terminated contracts are also prescribed.

Develop your leadership bench

Superintendency is a tough job, but it’s more sustainable when leaders can spread the load. School districts can develop their leadership bench by investing ahead of time in training and experiences that build capable, diverse leaders proactively. This is easiest to accomplish when a district proactively includes pathways to succession in a superintendent’s written goals The Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) runs frequent training programs to help leaders of schools and districts to build their skills.

Leslie Reckler is a School Board Trustee in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, which recently conducted a superintendent search. She is the mother of two, a passionate supporter of public education, and an occasional contributor to (See her posts about open meeting laws, school site councils, and accreditation.)

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
tamara_hurley January 18, 2022 at 1:38 pm
San Diego Unified School District's "Superintendent Search Advisory Committee" consists of primarily of cronies -- including past and current politicians and their staff members -- chosen behind closed doors by Board trustees and rubber-stamped at a public meeting.
As such, I would discourage using San Diego Unified as an example of a superintendent search process.
user avatar
Teri B January 18, 2022 at 10:49 am
Please respect the confidentiality of applicants! You can lose some great candidates if they don't feel they can talk to you about the position without risking their current job.
user avatar
francisco molina January 12, 2022 at 3:13 am
Leslie, gracias es un buen aporte , especialmente lo de la asociación de distritos pequeños.
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