The Shared Superintendency
Districts find savings and efficiency when one leader manages two neighboring systems, but the arrangement doesn't suit all tastes
BY ALAN WECHSLER/School Administrator, October 2018

Superintendent John Evans is shared by three small school districts in New York state’s Catskills region, near the border with Pennsylvania.
John Evans may be busier than a typical superintendent. He is shared by three school districts in two neighboring counties, all located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.

This fall marks the sixth school year that Evans has managed the simultaneous affairs of more than one small, remote school system. He can tell you the drive time between obligations can be long. Sometimes the weather at one end of his 400-square-mile territory differs completely from the other side, a constant worry between the long winters and the floods that occasionally arise in spring.

Evans, 47, must tactfully delegate duties, choose wisely which events and meetings to attend and find time for his wife, Stacy, and four children, including a 7th grader and a 10th grader.

Back in 2013, the boards of education in Roscoe, with 270 students, and Downsville, with 265, agreed to share Evans as their superintendent. Three years later, neighboring Livingston Manor, with another 500 students, joined the conglomerate. Under the current agreement, each district saves between $50,000 and $75,000 in administrative costs annually, and Evans has seen a marked boost to his salary — by about $80,000, to $213,000 a year — when compared to what he would receive working for a single school district.

While acknowledging the distinctive challenges of a three-way share, Evans says he’s still enjoying the role. “I have a little more gray hair than when I started,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s age or added stress.”

Popular Alternative
The concept of two school districts sharing a top administrator is not new. While the trend apparently lost favor in the 2000s, it appears to be regaining momentum in some parts of the country as a result of the last recession, which financially strapped school communities without much of a tax base. Some states encourage the practice as a potential first step toward consolidation. No national organization, however, tracks the number of shared superintendencies.

What does it take for a superintendent to make a share successful? It helps if he or she is flexible, a natural communicator and a people person. The shared superintendent needs to be able to delegate work to building principals, keep many balls in the air at any one point and have a high tolerance for stress. Also, they must be ready to surrender many weeknights.

For Evans, success came in part from his familiarity with the districts, which lie along the New York state border with Pennsylvania. He grew up in Roscoe and now lives with his family in Livingston Manor, where he once worked as a high school teacher. With his sharp increase in salary, Evans says the move will help keep him in place. That can be a great relief to school boards in rural communities that have been accustomed to leadership churn.

“My secretary (in Roscoe) had been there 28 years,” Evans says, “and I was the 19th superintendent she had worked with.”

Path to Savings
Evans’ shared superintendency has triggered shared services, cost savings and better options for students — distance learning programs, more competitive sports teams, shared field trips, driver education programs and a combined pep band at football games. The districts are setting up a collaborative student theater program.

The three districts also are sharing the personnel costs of new special education teachers to reduce the cost of sending students with disabilities to the regional BOCES. Students are transported shorter distances between districts to the appropriate special education teacher, saving an estimated $28,000 annually per student, Evans says. Students with more specialized needs continue to attend BOCES.

In addition, the three districts save about $50,000 through a shared business official who, like Evans, spends some time in each place. The districts are using a $37,500 state matching grant to investigate further sharing opportunities, such as groundskeeping and other maintenance operations. Under the agreement, the boards of education can re-evaluate the sharing structure at the end of each school year.

Gary Dahlman, president of the Roscoe Board of Education, says that while he is satisfied by the arrangement, occasionally parents will complain that the superintendent isn’t present at a function in their district.

“We knew going into it we weren’t going to have a superintendent in the building all the time and being able to attend all the functions,” Dahlman says. “You don’t have to physically be some place.”

Minor adjustments have been made to accommodate Evans’ schedule. Two of the districts had scheduled graduation ceremonies for the same day and time before one of the districts agreed to adjust its start time, enabling the superintendent to attend both commencements.

Sharing one leader, Dahlman adds, has allowed the three districts to skirt the unpopular discussion of merging the school districts into one. In 1999, the nearby districts of Narrowsburg, Jeffersonville-Youngsville and Delaware Valley made a controversial decision to merge into one district, Sullivan West.

“It takes someone who has vision and wants to keep the small schools going,” Dahlman says. “You’ve got to have the right person. John’s a hard worker. I don’t know if this would work with every superintendent.”

Endless Meetings

Pam Vogel works with eight governing boards as a superintendent in Connecticut’s rural northwestern corner, where she spends time with students involved in Future Farmers of America.

Some shared superintendencies have existed for years. When Pam Vogel moved from Iowa to take a new superintendent job in the rural, northwest corner of Connecticut, she knew she would be overseeing multiple school districts. But it wasn’t until after she arrived, in spring 2015, that she realized the extent of what she had signed up for.

The state’s Regional School District 1, with a total of 1,600 students, was created in 1939 with a quirk of home-rule stipulations — notably that each of the six K-8 schools and one high school would retain its own board of education.

“At any given month in the school year, I have at least seven (board) meetings. But it’s usually more than that,” Vogel says. There is also an eighth group, the all boards’ chairs committee, which handles large issues across the districts, such as shared staff hiring and changes in policy that affect all districts. This year, six of the seven schools are negotiating teachers’ contracts, with their corresponding committees and time demands.

When Vogel took the job, she thought the eight K-8 boards were merely advisory. It took a few weeks to realize the truth. The veteran administrator admits she was fortunate that her own children were grown, noting in the current year, “there are very few free nights.”

Vogel has worked with all six governing bodies to bring consistency to their educational standards by creating a common curriculum. To that end, she has launched common assessments to measure student achievement and determine where improvements are needed. She’s promoting standards-based grading to codify grades and a focus on personalized learning.

She believes her effectiveness relates to her communication in a region covering 275 square miles. She writes a column every few months for a local newspaper and started a quarterly electronic newsletter — with each school getting two pages to share its happenings. She also makes liberal use of Facebook and Twitter. She started a school community partnership program for parents — one for each school — so she can discuss the changes she’s instituted.

“When you go through a time of change, that’s a shift for some parents and teachers and some boards,” Vogel adds. “We really have to have that good communication. I think it’s imperative that that’s one of the things I try to do well.”

A Merger Alternative
For towns afraid of losing their local school and maybe their identity through district consolidation, sharing administrators is a more palatable alternative, says Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. He’s aware of about 30 shared superintendencies in his state.

To small, resource-starved districts open to the idea of a future consolidation, sharing a superintendent is a logical first step, Koocher says. In western Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains, a single superintendent managed schools in the towns of Lanesborough and Williamstown. It contributed to a merger agreement leading to the creation of a single district in July.

“It’s a good way to get a first date on the way to marriage,” Koocher says. “If you find you can live well together, that’s how some of our regions became regions.”

Far to the northeast, close to the border with New Brunswick, Canada, William Braun oversees 15 school districts in the Eastern Maine Area School System. At about 2,000 square miles, it’s the largest in the state by size, though the total student enrollment is just 641. “It is small,” Braun quips. “As I often say, there are more moose or bears per square mile than children.”

His strategy is to keep a working base in both sides of the district — three days at Baileyville to the east, two days at Lee, which is 55 miles to the west. From those locations, he makes forays to the smaller districts nearby.

A seasoned professional, Braun came out of retirement to assume the position (“I got bored sitting on the couch,” he says). He credits two secret tools for his success. The first is delegation. He puts a lot on the plate of his building principals and other administrators and is sure to follow up. His second tact: Don’t sweat the little stuff.

“I tell principals, ‘Stuff’s going to happen. Step back, take a deep breath, smile and just go forward,’” says Braun, who is 68. “I used to get stressed over a lot of things. Stuff happens — you just have to deal with it.”

He enjoys the challenge of keeping many plates spinning simultaneously and serving in a job where no two days are alike. On the downside, he’s putting about 1,000 miles a week on his new car. (See related story.)

Embraced in Places
Some states recently have begun to embrace superintendent sharing. In Iowa, only a handful of districts were sharing their leadership less than a decade ago. Now, the state has 253 superintendents and 333 districts, according to the School Administrators of Iowa. In total, 59 superintendents are managing two or more districts. The average district in the state has fewer than 900 students.

“We’ve had some pretty radical population shifts here in Iowa,” says Roark Horn, the state association’s executive director. “Everybody’s moving to a metropolitan area. You have to compensate for that.”

Other states in the region report fewer shares — four currently in Nebraska and nine in Illinois, according to administrator associations in those states.

Sharing is popular in other regions as well. “We’ve had quite a bit of that going on in the state,” says Dennis Ray of Northwest Leadership Associates in Liberty Lake, Wash. The Washington Association of School Administrators counts six shared situations heading into 2018-19.

“Small towns have been losing population for 50 years,” Ray says. “As they get smaller and smaller, those little villages have basically two choices — they can consolidate their schools, or what seems to be happening more to keep schools independent [districts] is to share superintendents and programs.”

Jason Andrews (center), shown hosting a lunch for student council presidents in the Windsor, N.Y., district, studied shared superintendencies in his doctoral dissertation.
Failed Sharing
Jason Andrews, superintendent of the Windsor Central School District outside Binghamton, N.Y., recently studied superintendent sharing in his doctoral dissertation at Sage Graduate School. In his literature review, he discovered a 1994 study that found a lower level of job satisfaction in shared leadership positions. Some states encouraged sharing through incentives, Andrews says.

Andrews’ dissertation in 2014 found one of the biggest factors contributing to a failed share is the superintendent’s reduced time in each district. “In many of these districts, the superintendent has a history of being extremely visible. When that visibility is impacted, that’s challenging for people,” he says.

Some have tried to resolve the public dissatisfaction by having other administrators or school board members take the superintendent’s place at meetings, student theater and musical shows and varsity sports events. “When you go to KFC, you don’t have to see the Colonel every time,” Andrews says, quoting the words a school board member used to placate local residents in a shared district.

In Pennsylvania, what was believed to be the first (and only) shared superintendency in the state collapsed in late 2017. Leaders at the Eastern Lancaster County School District ended their partnership with the more financially stressed Columbia Borough School District after 18 months.

The districts already share other services, such as technology and business operations, but the time requirements for the superintendent, Robert Hollister, were too much, says Glenn Yoder, Eastern Lancaster’s board president.

“Financially, it didn’t make enough sense to continue in the arrangement,” says Yoder, who adds that a promised financial incentive from the state to promote the sharing never materialized. “The benefit wasn’t enough to compensate for the amount of time they were looking to have him spend there.”

More Face Time
Jake Dingman, 40, serves as superintendent and principal in the 130-student Oakesdale School District in Washington. But for two school years, between 2012 and 2014, Oakesdale shared him with the neighboring 160-student Palouse district. Problems arose quickly, Dingman says, mainly because he no longer could attend school sporting events and Lion’s Club and chamber of commerce meetings.

“In Oakesdale, they were used to me being in everything. Suddenly I was half or less,” he says. “People were understanding, but they didn’t really like it. And I didn’t like being part-time.”

As a shared superintendent, Dingman found he was unable to get to know his new constituents. “I just wasn’t there enough,” he recalls. “When I was there a lot of the time, I was stuck in the office. That’s just not my style.”

In addition, the projected savings never materialized. While each district was paying $60,000 less for a superintendent, they wound up having to hire a full-time principal for duties the superintendent previously took care of, at a cost of around $90,000 per principal.

Today, Dingman gets to visit classes any time he wishes at Oakesdale. His office is set up so students walk right past his desk to see the secretary. They all say hello.

“The ideal job is what I’ve got now,” he admits.

ALAN WECHSLER is an education freelance writer in Albany, N.Y.