Knowing who does what in your child’s school, and figuring out the best ways to communicate with school staff, can help you be effective in supporting your child’s success in school.

All public school districts have many legal responsibilities. These must be taken care of “at the district level,” meaning they require the review or approval of the district’s school board. They include the following:

  • Selection of curriculum materials
  • Staff assignments, employee hires and dismissals, labor negotiations and contracts (teachers, principals, and other staff are all employees of the school district)
  • Monitoring both revenues and expenditures
  • Compliance with state and federal laws, including regulations related to dozens of categorical programs which range from special education to school lunches
  • Management of the district’s real property and facilities

In addition, most school districts centralize certain parts of their operation for efficiency and effectiveness. These can include staff development, purchasing, technology planning, strategic planning, public information, student transportation, student performance standards, and student assessments, to name just a few.

With the trend toward school-level decision making, some districts have pushed more operations and decisions to the school level. The district, however, retains the responsibility for equity of educational opportunity for all students in all of its schools.

School Districts Vary in Their Operation

Every school district is free to organize itself and the way it does business. As you might expect, larger school districts usually have bigger and more complex central operations. You might find separate departments or offices for virtually every function mentioned above. In a medium-sized district, a district administrator might have multiple responsibilities, such as purchasing, facilities, monitoring expenditures, and fiscal planning. In a one-school district, the principal is often also the superintendent and has some extra duties, including working with the school board.

The District/School Relationship

Often, school site people refer to the district office as “they” or the “folks downtown.” The degree to which schools and district office personnel work as partners can reveal a lot about the district’s culture. Many school districts that formerly functioned as regulators, ensuring school-level compliance with the rules, now emphasize providing support to school site staffs to help them improve their performance. With a few careful questions you can usually determine how your school district relates to the school site.

The Superintendent as Chief Administrator

The school district superintendent is the equivalent of a corporate chief executive officer. This is the person the school board holds accountable. The superintendent also acts as secretary to the board and as such is part of the school district’s governance team. The nature of the board/superintendent relationship in a district will tell you a great deal about how that district is run.

If you want to become involved in district-level decisions or committees, ask your school principal or another active parent how you can play a role. You can also call the superintendent’s office, which is often the first and best place to go for information. From this office you may be directed elsewhere, but it’s usually by someone who routinely deals with the public and knows how the district is organized.