A Superintendent Teetering on the Glass Cliff
BY TERRE DAVIS/School Administrator, March 2020

Terre Davis
As a former superintendent in two school districts who subsequently worked for two decades as a superintendent search consultant, I’ve seen my share of glass cliffs. We just may not have known the perils by that name in earlier years.

The most illustrative example I can share involves a highly qualified female candidate for a superintendency in the upper Midwest. She did her homework and found a school district opening for which she felt her talents and expertise were an excellent fit. The all-male board of education was composed mostly of prominent community members in the fields of medicine, higher education and agriculture.

The female candidate was hired to run the schools, which were located in an area with a suburban feel but remnants of its rural past. Within two weeks, she faced her first challenge. The teachers’ union was threatening a strike over its expired contract, and the community was split over the union’s demands along the suburban/rural divide. She asked the board for monetary guidelines for contract negotiations, met with the union president over lunch and settled the contract in relatively short order, much to the surprise of the board, the union and the community.

Over the next two years, the district made gains academically, attracted attention for athletic accomplishments, gained in student enrollment and received laudatory coverage in the local press as one of the area’s top school systems. But two members of the board (notably including the board president) were growing envious of the superintendent as she was receiving the accolades instead of the school board. Behind the scenes, three of the seven board members began to criticize her for too much involvement in the community — including her time spent leading the Rotary and her growing involvement in her state superintendents’ organization.

The glass cliff was apparent to the superintendent as the three board members met with her and asked that she tender her resignation. She knew no resolution was possible given the trio’s recent re-election to the board. She retired and started her own education consulting business. The retirement celebration honoring her achievements after 3½ years in the role was sponsored by the district’s staff. One member of the seven-member board attended.

A Board Blockage
It wasn’t so long ago that women moving into the superintendency were thought to be breaking the glass ceiling. Headlines in local newspapers tended to report: “Board hires a woman as its superintendent.” Women who achieved superintendent status knew they would be criticized in ways their male colleagues might not.

I’ve seen the job interview process itself represent a challenge for female candidates. During my time working as a search consultant, I found a female candidate who was by far the most qualified for a vacant superintendency, but the board indicated it would not even consider a female as their superintendent because the one they just had was a failure and had to be dismissed before the end of her contract.

Needless to say, the wise female candidate always will check out that possibility before considering applying. The glass cliff is there before a female even enters the field.

TERRE DAVIS is president of TD & Associates in Westcliffe, Colo.