Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hiring a New Superintendent - Some Appropriate Roles

There are appropriate roles for citizens and news media in the hiring of a new school district superintendent. There also are some inappropriate roles that can make selection of a new superintendent a school board nightmare.

The problems arise when: interest groups publicly demand to interview candidates for the job and to express their opinions as to who should be hired, and/or the identities of candidates are leaked to the news media.

The first problem is sure to discourage serious candidates and likely to result in a mismatch between the superintendent and the school board. (If the board expects the new superintendent to be accountable to the board, then the board must do the hiring, not the teachers union, business community or local television station.)

The second problem creates embarrassment for candidates who had been getting along fine with their current employers and is likely to result in withdrawals, not to mention a reduced pool of candidates the next time that school board goes looking for a superintendent.

To prevent such situations from arising, a school board that is about to launch a superintendent search must clearly establish its role as the employer. School boards are elected to represent the public, and one of their most important jobs is to employ a superintendent. Interviewing finalists and selecting the one who best meets the school district's needs is the job of the school board.

Activities that are appropriate to an election have no place in the selection of an educational leader for the school district.

It is not appropriate, for example, for a school board to present candidates to the public and make a selection on the basis of a popularity poll. News media representatives who advocate public forums evaluating candidates confuse election campaigns with the employment process.

By the same token, news media representatives who treat candidates for the superintendency like public celebrities create a reputation for their school districts that discourages successful administrators from becoming candidates.

To accommodate those eager for involvement and preclude unreasonable demands, the school board should establish procedures for ascertaining the views of the community in establishing qualifications and standards for the superintendency. There are many ways to seek these views, including surveys, committees, public hearings, and just generally listening to what people say they would like in a new superintendent. Newspapers and broadcast media can play a key role by encouraging interested people to speak up and publicizing different points of view as to what the district needs.

However, public discussion of what the district needs in a superintendent must come long before the pool of applicants is narrowed down to a few finalists. Identifying desired qualifications and characteristics should be an initial step, for this information plays an important part of the board's advertising to solicit candidates.

During the final stages of the selection process, there probably are key persons in any community that a prospective superintendent might want or need to meet. Matching a superintendent with a community is usually a two-way sales situation, so the community must sell itself to the candidate as well as vice versa. A school board might arrange for two or three finalists to meet key school-community leaders.

A school board might also provide a public explanation of the consequences of inappropriate procedures. A mismatch between the job and the person ultimately hired results when candidates receive a distorted picture of who the employer is. And when news reporters use personal contacts to learn the identities of candidates for the superintendency and publicize their names and their current employers, candidates become leery of applying for the job--including perhaps the very one who would have been best for the district.

Some employing school boards are aware that their superintendents are pursuing other jobs, some are not. School boards usually must promise anonymity to candidates or advise candidates from the outset that anonymity cannot be guaranteed. School boards that cannot guarantee anonymity will receive fewer applications and have fewer candidates from which to choose a new superintendent. A school board that promises anonymity and doesn't deliver it sends an unpleasant message that reaches prospective candidates everywhere.

School boards, community leaders and news media should work together in their appropriate roles in seeking the very best educational leader for their schools.

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