Traits for Surviving a Shared Superintendency

What does it take to be successful — and survive — a shared superintendency? The experts consulted by School Administrator suggest an education leader must be a great manager, with financial savvy, communication skills and the ability to delegate tasks well to others. Anyone considering a position overseeing two (or more) school systems should ensure he or she has the full cooperation of both boards of education and the staffs and understanding communities.

» Managing with dexterity.
In 2011, when Roark Horn was earning a Ph.D. at the University of Northern Iowa, the veteran school superintendent decided to study the phenomenon of shared superintendents. Horn developed a list of what makes for good sharing.

The individual who agrees to move from leading one district to two must be financially savvy, have a high degree of fairness and be highly organized. Shared superintendents must be quick to build trust and know how to make the right decisions fast. They can’t micromanage. They need to be student-focused and accept that relations with staff will not be as deep as before.

“You have twice the amount of people and half the amount of time,” says Horn, who is executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa.

Finally, Horn says, the sharing works best if the incentive is about more than just saving money. For instance, does the superintendent have a particular skill in budgeting, in improving student instruction or in running facilities? “If the collaboration will benefit the districts beyond the financial, that would be a good reason to start,” he adds.

» Move cautiously and communicate broadly.
Jason Andrews, superintendent in Windsor, N.Y., who has researched the subject, suggests districts interested in sharing a leader start by sharing services to allow staff and community members to get to know one another. They also should undertake a study to ensure the sharing arrangement makes sense, financially and otherwise, he says.

Andrews discovered the sharing of a superintendent works much better if the leader already has gotten to know the administration, faculty and community in at least one district before the arrangement begins rather than coming in as a new face to multiple districts. The school boards should prepare their respective communities to be realistic about the number of events the superintendent will likely attend due to time constraints and conflicts.

Finally, district leaders should communicate to parents and community members about the purpose and benefits of the sharing situation.

“In these rural districts, the school and community identify is critical,” Andrews says. “There’s a lot of pride. When people view (sharing) as a loss of autonomy or identity or [see it] as a step toward merging, people are skeptical.”

» Landing the right person.
Superintendent John Evans, who is shared by three districts in New York’s Catskills region, says fit is important. “Having a connection in each of the districts really helps. I was a familiar face with all three schools before entering into this. It just made it a little bit easier,” he says.

All school board members in the two districts ought to favor the move. A single negative voice on a board could upset the arrangement. “I have 15 board members, and all 15 are behind this 100 percent,” Evans says.