Superintendents have a tough road. They’re leaving the field in “unprecedented numbers,” cracking under the political and fiscal pressures placed on them. In Pennsylvania, superintendents spend an average three years on the job before leaving, according to a 2014 survey. The role has changed a lot in recent years, and the expectations are even higher now to move mountains – raising test scores and other student performance numbers, increasing their teaching talent, and adding new technology capabilities. And all without spending more money.
It’s a delicate balance for them to manage their district’s financial health and student achievement. Some pressures seem to compete with one another, and superintendents don’t always find the support they need to do the work. In some areas, there are substitute superintendents who are first-years on short-term contracts to fill in for districts, unprepared for the complexities of the job. It can often be a 24-hour job with high stakes to turn around poor school ratings and student success rates.
School boards are asking hard accountability questions like whether their district’s spending is producing the needed results. However, there can be opportunities to align cost efficiency and student performance goals. Today, we’ve rounded up seven leadership tips from veteran superintendents on how to manage both bottom lines and lay the groundwork for the future for their district.
1. Go public early and often. Transparency is everything. No matter if you represent a rural or large district, experienced superintendents suggest that you plan a kickoff tour for your first year. This time is important for building connections and getting buy in from parents, board members, and the public. When it comes to the time when you’ll have to make big cuts or changes for your district, this will help getting their buy-in early on.
2. Be proactive in seeking out resources and support. Being a new superintendent can be isolating and challenging; it’s important to secure at least a handful of trusted advisers or mentors to help you as soon as you start the job. If you don’t have a network of people to rely on, there are valuable organizations such as the School Superintendents Association (AASA) and the National Association of School Superintendents. Not only is it important to learn from your peers, you should seek out continued learning and training to develop new leadership strategies and skills.
3. Build strong relationships with your senior team. Having an effective team takes attention, time, and patience, but doing so can drastically improve your success in the long run. As superintendent, you are the only one who can truly empower your cabinet members to work collaboratively. More commonly, developing a dysfunctional team that meets only once a month will become a lasting problem. If meetings are focused mainly on operational progress, your team members will only see issues from their silos, limiting the quality of decision-making and collaboration you need to solve critical issues in the district. Recommended Reading: Advice for Superintendents (AASA)
4. Is your district allocating resources equitably across schools? The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) intends to have states precisely answer for every dollar spent. How prepared is your district for implementing your state’s strategic plan for ESSA over the next couple of years? This next phase of this initiative will greatly shift how districts monitor student outcomes, so they will understand if, when, and where your resources should be reallocated for the best results.
5. Find one metric to focus on in your first year. When you’re new in the position, the anxiety is real to prove yourself in the first year. One piece of advice from S. Dallas Dance, the superintendent at Baltimore County Public Schools – every district has one metric that everyone is concerned about, so put a laser focus on it. There will be a lot of problems you’ll be up against, and the important thing is to pace yourself and prioritize in steps. Recommended Reading: Superintendent Survival Guide
6. Pinpoint the effective strategies that are improving performance. Do your school leaders have access to important financial data, budget, and accounts that will help them report and make school- and department-level decisions? At the district level, you also need to be able to track resource alignment across schools, and to find evidence of the resources and programs that are responsible for increasing student achievement (and can be replicated).
7. Assess the cost-effectiveness of your district’s policies. Do you know if the programs you are creating actually add learning opportunities, and do you know when they should be discontinued? Big data will be essential for you to balance program cost and effect throughout the year, and finding new ways to eliminate wasteful spending.