The superintendent of a school district sets the direction and tone while responding to the often competing demands of the board of trustees, administrators, teachers, parents, students and the community.

What Does the Superintendent Do?

The superintendent is the CEO of the school district. He or she sets the tone, charts the course of the district, and works closely with the board of trustees. The superintendent is also responsible for hiring and supervising the other administrators in the district, including the chief financial officer and the school principals.

Working with the board can pose significant challenges for the superintendent. The board is the superintendent’s boss. They are responsible for hiring and firing the superintendent, and evaluating his or her performance on a regular basis. Since it is an elected body, new members might be chosen every few years. This change can create a different dynamic in the relationship with the superintendent from year to year, depending on who is elected.

The principals are the key leaders at each school. It is the superintendent’s job to evaluate their performance and see to it that they are effective leaders, working with the teachers at the school to serve the needs of students and meet the district goals.

The superintendent must also respond to the demands of all the other constituencies in the district: the teachers, students, parents, staff and the community at large. He or she must consider how to allocate the financial and human resources of the district in order to achieve the best results. While being mindful of all the competing demands, a great superintendent will ultimately be guided by a singular question: What is best for all students?

How Do the Superintendent and the Board of Trustees Work Together?

The board of trustees is responsible for setting the policies of the district, overseeing the budget and hiring/firing the superintendent. The board and superintendent work together to establish goals for the district, and then the superintendent must see to it that the goals are met. In a well-run district, the superintendent is evaluated regularly by the board, based on the goals that they have jointly set. The superintendent takes the broad goals set by the board and translates them into real programs that achieve results.

When Should a Parent Contact the Superintendent?

If your child is having a problem in his classroom, you should first communicate with the teacher. If you feel that the teacher is not responding adequately, contact the principal. If communication fails with the principal, then take the problem to the superintendent. Most superintendents will want to know that you have attempted to handle a problem in this way before bringing it to their attention.

If you have a concern that applies to the entire school district (such as declining achievement levels throughout the district or mass flight out of the district), then approach the superintendent.

Signs of an Effective Superintendent

  • A great superintendent has a clear vision for the district. He or she works with the board of trustees to set the vision, goals and objectives for the district, and then sees to it that the goals are achieved.
  • A great superintendent is an instructional leader. He or she knows that the most important job of the school district is to make sure students are learning and achieving at high levels. He or she is knowledgeable of the best practices for maximizing student achievement and is supportive of teachers in the district.
  • A great superintendent is an effective communicator. He or she must make a concerted effort to communicate the needs and accomplishments of the district in a variety of formats: through written reports, communication with the media, public meetings and attendance at school events.
  • A great superintendent is a good manager. He or she directs the administrators to accomplish the goals of the district, monitors their progress and evaluates their performance.
  • A great superintendent is a good listener. He or she must listen and take into account differing viewpoints of various constituencies, and then make the best decision.
  • A great superintendent is not afraid to take risks or make a commitment. An average superintendent might set goals that are either vague or easily achieved but a great superintendent would not be afraid to boldly set goals, such as “The majority of third graders will be able to read by the end of the school year,” and then put the programs and resources in place to achieve those goals.
  • A great superintendent is flexible. He or she needs to be able to manage the politics of the job – to adapt to new board members, changes in state funding and changes in the school community while not sacrificing the district’s vision. A great superintendent takes a collaborative rather than a confrontational approach.

Signs of an Ineffective Superintendent

  • An ineffective superintendent gets mired in the details of running the district. He or she is always busy but doesn’t seem to have a clear agenda and direction for the district.
  • An ineffective superintendent is unavailable. He or she does not respond to phone calls or answer questions from constituents or the media. He or she is not often seen visiting school campuses or attending school meetings other than school board meetings.
  • An ineffective superintendent is always making excuses. If he or she begins most sentences with “Well, we can’t do that for a variety of reasons,” or “That is not something we have control of,” your district is not going to move forward. Effective superintendents create solutions, not excuses.
  • An ineffective superintendent agrees with everyone and never takes a stand. It’s an impossible job in a school district to keep everyone happy all the time. An effective superintendent must take a stand and do what is the best for all students, even if that means offending the teachers union or a group of parents, or any other constituency, on a particular issue.

What You Should Do If You Think the Superintendent is Ineffective

If you have concerns about the superintendent’s performance, communicate with the board of trustees. As they are elected, they are ultimately responsible to the community who elects them. Ask the following questions:

  • Does the board regularly evaluate the superintendent’s performance?
  • On what basis is the superintendent’s performance evaluated?
  • Is there an opportunity for public input as part of the evaluation process?

Two Superintendents Who Have Made a Difference

Dr. Frank Till focuses on student achievement

In 1999 when Dr. Frank Till became superintendent of the Broward County Public Schools in Florida, one of the fastest growing districts in the nation, with an urban/suburban, multicultural mix of 270,000 students and 251 schools, he made it his top priority to focus on improving student achievement. “We were able to improve student achievement by setting specific goals that could be measured,” notes Till. “And we focused our resources on meeting those goals.”

When Till came to the district, 14 of the schools were designated as low performing. He and the school board set the goal of bringing up the grade of those schools to a passing grade of C. (The 14 schools were all rated by the state as D or F at the time.) By focusing resources on improvement, the district was able to bring 13 of those schools up to a C or above. Another problem in the district was the high dropout rate and low expectations for high school students. Under Till’s leadership, a goal was set to raise the number of students taking the PSAT. A target number was set and the district met the goal, raising expectations and achievements.

In 2003 the Council of Great City Schools recognized Till for his work by giving him the Richard R. Green Award, in honor of exceptional contributions to urban schools.

“A great superintendent has to have a real passion for the job,” says Till. “He’s the one who sets the tone. Whatever the superintendent neglects, that sends a message that it’s not a priority. The superintendent has to be the conscience of the district. He has to be willing to make tough decisions and work with the diverse political forces – parent groups, unions, the community, and make them all work to be part of the solution.”

Dr. Laura Schwalm depends on the efforts of a great staff

Dr. Laura Schwalm has been superintendent of the Garden Grove Unified School District in Orange County, California since 1999 but knows her district well from serving as a teacher and administrator for 34 years prior to her appointment as superintendent.

Under her tenure, the district has made great strides in improving student achievement among its diverse student population, which includes 80 percent non-native English speakers and 65 percent who receive free or reduced-price lunch. In September 2004 the district received the Broad Prize for Urban Education, a $1 million award for the most outstanding urban school district in the nation. But Schwalm refuses to take all the credit for leading her district to success. “We are successful because of the great people we have. I am just one cog in the wheel,” she says. “It also takes having a laser-like focus and clearly aligned expectations,” she adds.

The district established two district-wide goals that could be measured at the school, classroom and student level. “Our goals were reasonable as well as ambitious,” notes Schwalm. The goals were that any student who had been in the district for five years would be proficient in reading and math, and that any English language learner would advance by one level each year on the statewide English proficiency test. That meant that students would be focused on improving their English skills while, at the same time, working on their academic skills. Schools and teachers could not make excuses based on student mobility because they would only be held accountable for students who stayed in the district for five years or more.

“The key is setting the focus and staying true to it,” says Schwalm. “We put into place data systems that help us to analyze performance based on facts rather than opinions, and adjust the resources based on where the needs are. It’s not rocket science, but it is hard work.”