Executive Perspective

Extending Superintendents' Tenures
By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, December 2019

HAVING BEEN A superintendent for 27 years, I am prone to say that the superintendency is one of the toughest jobs in America. I held the position for a long time in four school districts, but that is not typical. We know from studies we do periodically at AASA that the average tenure in a position is around five years, but it differs according to the size of the district and its demographics.

A study done last year by the Broad Center showed that the higher the poverty level of the district, the shorter the superintendent’s stay. That was also true for districts with higher numbers of students of color. In addition, female superintendents seem to have a shorter tenure than males.

We at AASA are in the midst of completing our association’s decennial study of the school superintendent, and it will be interesting to see the new findings when they are is-sued at the national conference in February. We thank those of you who participated in the survey during the summer.

We have been alarmed by what seems to be an escalating turnover rate. In years past, it was unusual to see a superintendent dismissed without cause, but over the last few years that is exactly what seems to be happening, with some superintendents receiving large payouts for the remaining years of their contracts.

Turnover also seems to be increasing in school districts with high poverty and majority minority students. These are districts where superintendent tenure is already shorter.

Sustained Tenures
Superintendent tenure is critical to the quality of education. Outstanding school systems boast of long tenure in their leadership, among both school board members and the superintendent. It is generally the exact opposite for dysfunctional systems characterized by short leadership tenure.

AASA’s Leadership Network has developed a menu of programs design-ed to provide sitting superintendents and aspiring leaders with the skills to not only survive but thrive on the job. 

Urban districts tend to have the demographics that the Broad Center report indicates have the shorter tenures. Ironically, those are the districts that would most benefit from sustained leadership. Those are districts where the students need the superintendent to champion their cause, where the lack of equity and adequate resources stand in the way of providing the opportunities needed to succeed.

The AASA Urban Academy, now in its fifth year in partnership with Howard University and the University of Southern California, supports the efforts of committed educational leaders and aspiring superintendents to succeed in these most challenging settings. Participants work with notable urban leaders like Joseph Hairston, former superintendent in Baltimore County, Md.; Curtis Jones, the 2019 National Superintendent of the Year in Bibb County, Ga.; and Maria Ott at USC’s Rossier School of Education, among other successful urban leaders.

AASA’s renowned National Superintendent Certification Program continues to provide early-career superintendents with the skills, knowledge and professional network that will sustain them in effective leadership. Lead teachers and mentors in the program are active, experienced superintendents such as Susan Enfield of Highline, Wash.; Steve Murley of Iowa City, Iowa; Aaron Spence of Virginia Beach, Va.; Bill Hite of Philadelphia; and Dave Schuler of suburban Chicago.

I refer to the “secret sauce” responsible for the success of our programs as providing our participants with opportunities to network and learn from each other. The interaction among the cohort members and the experienced group of superintendents who teach, mentor and coach results in a professional development experience that many graduates consider their best.

If you check the AASA website, you will see the full array of programs that we offer to support superintendents and those who aspire to the job.

Personal Endurance
I was a runner during all the years that I was a superintendent. I would get up at 5:30 every weekday morning and run four miles. On weekends I would run six miles. My workdays tended to last 12 hours, longer on board meeting nights.

When others learned of my exercise routine, some remarked they would not have the energy to last all those hours if they got up that early to run. In fact, because I got up early to exercise, I had the energy to last all those hours and be effective. 

The stress and demands of being a superintendent require that you take care of your professional and physical needs so that you can keep your health and your job.

DANIEL DOMENECH is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASADan