School districts can vary as much as the student populations that inhabit them and the towns that host them. There are nonetheless common elements to what many school boards look for in the superintendents that lead them. With one of us serving in a smaller rural district and the other having served in a mid-sized urban district, and both having taken part in superintendent searches, we collectively came up these five characteristics that we believe are central to the finding the right candidate.
1. Are you experienced? Do you have experience in dealing with the needs of the school district you are interviewing for? If the district is majority-minority, can you provide examples of successfully working with diverse populations? If it is rural, do you understand the challenges faced by transporting students long distances and a tax base that lacks rapid growth? If the district is struggling academically, your work at another district that already was excelling when you got there may not matter much. Likewise, awards for a building program may not impress a hiring district with less than 500 students.
2. Will you tell us the truth? School board members too often are told only what others think they want to be told. When we find staff who will tell us the truth, even when it hurts, we are deeply grateful. Ask any school board member who the two people on staff are who will tell them the truth. We predict they will give you the names without hesitation and speak of them with great fondness.
3. Can we afford you? You may think you’re a rock star based on what you did at your prior district and deserve to be paid accordingly. But if your salary request is going to be the top local headline on the day you are hired, that’s a problem. With school closures and teacher lay-offs a possibility in many budget years, and the state and federal governments not getting any more generous, a salary request that is in line with what comparative districts are paying will be much appreciated by the hiring board. After all, we’re taxpayers, too.
4. Why did that happen? We don’t expect you to be perfect and controversy free. Even the best leaders often face stiff opposition. Tell us, honestly, why the last board let you go, why your district had those bad headlines, or why you’ve never stayed somewhere more than a year and a half. Admitting where you made errors and explaining what you learned from them makes us think you are less likely to be misleading us about our portions of your resume.
5. Are you likable? Call us shallow, but we’re going to be spending a lot of time in meetings with you, open and closed, as well as training sessions and conferences. We also will rely on you to effectively deal with the media and parents. With two candidates otherwise close in qualifications, the likable one is likely to get hired every time. Life is too short, budgets too tight, and the media too influential, to hire someone who unnecessarily alienates others.
We can’t guarantee every board member will feel likewise, but if you can nail these five things, you will be at the front of the pack when it comes to candidates. From a board member’s perspective, the pool of applicants often seems a mile wide but only a few inches deep. Don’t just tell us how wonderful you are, tell us stories that demonstrate it and let us see the you that is thoughtful, sometimes bold, sometimes self-questioning, and very frequently enjoyable to be around.
Question: Help us out. What qualifications are YOU looking for in a superintendent? You can leave a comment by clicking here.