Board-Savvy Superintendent

When Exiting, Refrain From Successor Selection
By PEG PORTSCHELLER/School Administrator, June 2020 

THERE COMES A TIME WHEN, as superintendents, we head for the exit door. This can happen as we ponder retirement, as we seek employment elsewhere or as the board of education for whom we work chooses not to renew our contract.
Regardless, it behooves us to leave our position with grace and humility. To serve as the CEO/superintendent of an organization is indeed an honor.

As I assumed my first superintendency, I found an envelope addressed to me in the top drawer of my office desk. The note card, written by the outgoing superintendent, still holds a prominent place in my box of memorabilia. It said simply, “I wish you all the best and hope that your time here brings as much joy as I have experienced. In spite of challenges here, there and everywhere, miracles abound.” The note also said champagne would have been included but board policy and state law prohibited liquor on district property.

What a warm, wonderful surprise.

Nonparticipant Role

As one departs, what is one’s role relative to assisting the board in the search process for a successor? Quite simply, short of some dramatic circumstances, there is none.

Often, the board of education, in seeking a new superintendent, will lean toward emphasizing the skills, abilities and experiences that may have been a bit deficit in the departing superintendent. If the outgoing leader was strong on fiscal and business matters, bond issues and facility oversight, the board may seek someone strong in relationships, culture and team building.

Boards are best served when they secure an external partner with whom to work in the search and selection process. These partners (McPherson and Jacobson; Ray and Associates; Hazard, Young and Attea; state school boards associations, etc.) can and should assist in identifying criteria in the selection of the next superintendent and establishing a process for the search. And while the final decision rests with the school board, it is wise to include the voices of employees, parents, business owners, seniors, civic leaders, students and others in discussions about the skills, attributes and capabilities sought in the next leader.

At times, the board may directly ask the outgoing superintendent to assume a role in the process. While we may be tempted to assist, it is best to steer the board toward engaging with a firm.

Recently, a superintendent who was retiring inserted himself into the process, attempting to steer the board toward candidates he supported (presumedly for noble reasons). Fortunately, the board had contracted with a search firm and the firm’s consultants, upon learning of this, accompanied the outgoing superintendent to the proverbial woodshed, reminding him it was their job to assist the board in their search and selection. The outgoing superintendent was directed to refrain from participating in the search process. It is in everyone’s best interests to keep the process “clean.”

Steering Clear

In another district, a superintendent decided to retire after experiencing health issues. Because several critical initiatives were underway, she believed it best to shape the process herself to ensure a friend was selected. The entire situation went south when former board members serving on the citizens’ committee insisted the board “take control of the process.” The superintendent ended up departing early, and no one was well-served.

In yet another case, a board of education asked the outgoing superintendent to lead the search. While everyone involved may have had good intentions (it surely saved money), things quickly turned ugly when the board became disenchanted with the new superintendent six months into his tenure and blamed the past superintendent. No district needs this kind of chaos. Money spent on a quality search firm is money well spent.

Of the many statutory responsibilities held by school boards, perhaps none is more important than selecting the district’s superintendent to lead the community forward. The greatest way for sitting superintendents to contribute is to stay out of the way and be as supportive as possible at arm’s length … and as gracious as possible to one’s successor.

“The greatest way for sitting superintendents to contribute is to stay out of the way and be as supportive as possible …”

PEG PORTSCHELLER, a retired superintendent, is president of Portscheller & Associates in Parachute, Colo. Twitter: @pportsch