Chapter 7




Arthur J. Townley


History of the Superintendency


The office of superintendent of schools is generally regarded as the preeminent position in American public education. This view has not always prevailed. Public schools existed in the United States for approximately 200 years before the first superintendent was appointed, and a number of years passed before the majority of districts appointed persons with this title.


Three Stages of Development


Griffiths (1966) described three stages in the development of the superintendency. These three stages include the years 1837 to 1910, 1910 to 1945, and 1945 to the present. In the first stage, a superintendent's major responsibility was supervision of the instructional program. Analysis of the duties of the early superintendents reveals little or no responsibility for business management, school buildings, or finance. Superintendents considered themselves as scholars responsible for working with teachers, rather than as the schools' chief executive officers we envision today. However, by the end of this first period, the phrase school's chief executive officer began to appear. Responsibilities were changing to reflect the shift from a rural, agriculturally based society to an increasingly urban, industrial society.


During the second phase of development, from 1910 to 1945, the superintendent assumed the responsibilities of a business official. He, or the female who rarely occupied this position, became the executive officer of the board of education. Business operations became the primary focus, with particular emphasis on efficiency of operation. During this time, formal training for the superintendency was initiated by universities and professors of educational administration gained prominence by training professional administrators. Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Stanford, and Harvard were the most influential institutions in the training of superintendents. Thousands of aspiring superintendents enrolled in these and other universities. The view of the superintendent as businessman reached its peak about 1930. However, as the Great Depression nfolded, the public became disillusioned with business leadership. As a consequence, the nation called for more democratic administration in private as well as public organizations, including schools.


In its third stage of development, 1945 to the present, the superintendency continues to evolve. However, its clearest attribute is shared leadership. The superintendent shares leadership with professional organizations. State legislative bodies exert far greater control and influence over schools than in previous decades. This second half of the twentieth century has also seen extensive control of schools through judicial rulings of state and federal courts. By the same token, control of schools by local boards has diminished as unions, pressure groups, and external government agencies have usurped their traditional powers.


During this third period, priority in training superintendents has been focused on developing an understanding of the uses of political power and the skills needed to share authority with competing groups. Superintendents are now expected to build coalitions for education reform. According to a recent survey, the average tenure of superintendents is approximately six years (Education Week, 1988). Ornstein (1990) found in a recent survey of the nation's 100 largest school districts, that 24 percent of districts' chief executive officers were new superintendents. The tenure of superintendents is in peril. This reality has been particularly evident in large urban districts (Griffiths, 1966).


The First Superintendents


Although the year is open to debate; Louisville, Kentucky, is generally credited with appointing the first school superintendent, probably in 1837. The population of the city was 17,600; school enrollment was only 716. Ten teachers were responsible for the 716 students. Teacher organizations of the 1990s would not be pleased with a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 70+ (Griffiths, 1966).


In California, San Francisco was the first district to appoint a superintendent. The position was created in 1852, with a student enrollment of 1,399. Los Angeles followed suit in 1854, with a student enrollment of 127 (Griffiths, 1966).


The first superintendents were teachers. The common practice was to appoint the best teacher as superintendent. There was no consistent pattern in the title of the man or woman who was named to this position. At various times, the person selected to head the school district was designated visitor, manager, treasurer, or headmaster. Of the many possible titles that could have been chosen for the chief executive officer of American schools, the word superintendent emerged as the best. Combining the Latin words super, meaning over, with intendere, meaning direct attention to, seemed to fit the needs of boards of education when they decided to employ someone to oversee and direct the operations of schools.


Modern day superintendents may look back at the first superintendents with nostalgia and envy. School districts were, for the most part, small. It would not have been a difficult task to personally know all staff

members, and in many communities, most parents and influential community leaders. In the days before advanced technology, a superintendent would not have had to cope with computer technology, a car phone to which board members have access at all times, fax machines, and the multitude of reports, accountability documents, and other societal advancements that complicate the position today.


However, even in this early era the superintendency did not enjoy universal support or lack for conflict.

Wilson (1960), in his book The Modern School Superintendent, lists several indicators that life was not smooth sailing for the early superintendents:


1.      Many voices were raised in objection to the position of superintendent. Economy-minded citizens expressed the opinion that a superintendent has not been needed in the past and is not needed now.

2.      Local board members were often anxious to eliminate the task of personally supervising the schools on one hand, but were also jealous of giving up the task. Cries of one-man rule were often heard.

3.      Teachers and principals often did not support the superintendent and subverted the position in many ways. In many instances, teachers and principals continued to have open access to board members and showed littlereluctance to oppose a directive they did not like.

4.      Lack of a clearly defined role for the superintendent often resulted in conflict between the superintendent and the board or individual board members.

5.      The early superintendents rarely had formal training in management or leadership skills. Universities did not attempt to provide specialized training for the superintendency until long after it had been established.

6.      Major problems faced by the first superintendents were board expectations that were difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. These expectations were even more inappropriate in the face of reluctance to provide compensation commensurate with responsibility.


A school district superintendent in the 1990s could look at this list and confirm that--despite the passage of

150 years--not much has changed.


The Superintendency Today


Today over 14,000 men and women serve as school superintendents in the United States. There is no doubt

as to the need for this leadership position. Even the most militant unions have come to accept its importance (Wirt, 1990). Wilson (1960) argued that proof of the arrival of any group is its decision to organize. If that is the case, the superintendency arrived before the close of the Civil War. At that time the National Association of School Superintendents was formed, with representation from nine states and 20 cities. This organization affiliated with the National Education Association in 1870, then changed its name to American Association of School Administrators (AASA) in 1937 (Wilson, 1960). It currently boasts a membership of over 18,000, one of the largest departments of the National Education Association (personal communication, January 8, 1992).


What are the characteristics of school superintendents? The American superintendency is largely dominated by middle-aged, Caucasian males, as has been true throughout the history of the profession.


Sex. In a national survey of the urban superintendency in 1951, 99.4 percent of the respondents were male.

Thirty years later in 1982, despite major changes in career opportunities for women, a survey of a sample of

American school superintendents revealed that 98.8 percent were male.


Age. In a survey in 1923, the median age of superintendents was 43.1; in 1982, the median age was 48.7.


Ethnicity. Data on race were not gathered before 1971, but from 1971 to 1982, the percentage of minorities in

the superintendency remained virtually unchanged at 2.1 percent (0.8% black, 0.8% Hispanic, 0.2% Native

American, 0.1% Asian-Pacific Islander, and 0.2% other).


Family. Ninety-two percent were married; 87 percent reported that their social status was higher than that

of their parents. A large majority reported rural and small-town backgrounds, although an increasing number came from suburbs and large cities (Cunningham & Hentges, 1982).


The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) collects demographic data on administrators,

including superintendents, approximately every ten years. Several trends were discovered in their 1980



1.      Superintendents reported a slightly higher turnover rate than in the previous ten-year period and areduced length of time spent in the superintendency as a career (a mean of seven years). The averagelength of service in any one superintendency was estimated at 5.6 years.

2.      There was evidence of increased tension between superintendents and school boards, with about one respondent in six reporting that he or she had left the previous superintendency because of conflict with the board.

3.      Fewer superintendents said they would choose the profession again if given the chance (although half would still have done so).

4.      Superintendents viewed their role as growing in importance and status as a career.

5.      Superintendents reported that conflict is a built-in element of the job, and that the environment is filled with tension.

6.      As many as 75 percent of all superintendents will be eligible to retire by 1994 (Cunningham & Hentges, 1982).


Responsibilities of Superintendents in California


Legal Authority


Unlike most states, the California Legislature has placed a number of responsibilities for the superintendent in statute. The major provisions are as follows:


Secretary and bookkeeper. The governing board of any school district may employ a person not a member of the board to act as secretary and bookkeeper for the board. This responsibility is typically assigned to the superintendent. Duties include the following:


1.      Certify or attest to actions taken by the governing board whenever such certification or attestation is required for any purpose.

2.      Keep an accurate account of the receipts and expenditures of school monies.

3.      Make an annual report, on or before the first day of July, to the County Superintendent of Schools in the manner and form and on the blanks prescribed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

4.      Make or maintain such other records or reports as are required by law (Education Code 35025 & 35250).


Additional powers and responsibilities. In addition to the superintendent serving as the secretary and

bookkeeper for the board, responsibilities are also described in the following excerpts from California law:


1.      Act as chief executive officer of the governing board of the district.

2.      Prepare and submit to the governing board of the district, at the time it may direct, the budget of the district for the next ensuing school year, and revise and take other action in connection with the budget as the board may desire.

3.      Subject to the approval of the governing board, assign all employees of the district, employed in positions requiring certification qualifications, to the positions in which they are to serve; this power to assign includes the power to transfer a teacher from one school to another.

4.      Determine that each employee of the district in a position requiring certification qualifications has a valid certificated document registered as required by law and authorizing him or her to serve in the position to which he or she is assigned.

5.      Enter into contracts for and on behalf of the district.

6.      Submit two reports during the fiscal year to the governing board. The first report shall cover the financial and budgetary status of the district for the period ending not earlier than October 31 nor later than December 31. The second report shall cover the period ending March 31 (Education Code 35035).


Employment term and qualifications. In addition to containing job responsibilities, powers, and duties, a

number of Education Code sections pertain to employment of the superintendent.


No person shall be eligible to hold a position as city superintendent, district superintendent, deputy superintendent, associate superintendent, or assistant superintendent of schools unless he or she is the

holder of both a valid school administration certificate and a valid teacher's certificate (Education Code



However, the subsequent code section grants authority to a local board to waive credential requirements

for the superintendent. "A local governing board may waive any credential requirement for the chief

administrative officer of the school district under its jurisdiction" (Education Code 35029).


Any district superintendent of schools may be elected for a term of no more than four years. The governing

board, with the consent of the employee concerned, may at any time terminate, effective on the next succeeding first day of July, the term of employment of, and any contract of employment with the superintendent, and reelect or reemploy the employee on those terms and conditions as may be mutually

agreed upon by the board and the employee, for a new term to commence on the effective date of the

termination of the existing term of employment (Education Code 35031).


This same code section contains a provision for notice to the superintendent should the board determine not to renew the contract. In the event the governing board determines the superintendent is not to be reelected or reemployed upon the expiration of his or her term, he or she shall be given written notice thereof by the governing board at least 45 days in advance of the expiration of his or her term.


Board-Defined Responsibilities


In the 1989-1990 school year California had 1,010 school districts ranging in size from a small, rural district

in northern California with a student population of 32 students to the large, metropolitan district of Los Angeles with a student population in excess of 800,000 and more than 600 schools. All but the very smallest of these 1,010 districts has a superintendent (California Public School Directory, 1989). Education Code Section 35026 states, "The governing board of any school district employing eight or more teachers may employ a district superintendent for one or more schools and may delegate to the district superintendent any of the duties prescribed for in Section 35250", which reads, "The governing board of each school district shall fix and prescribe the duties to be performed by all persons in public school service in the district."


Even though the job title of the Superintendent Principal Teacher of Alpine district with its 32 students may not be the same as that of the Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, the range of responsibilities and the job requirements are very comparable. Each governing board has responsibility to develop a specific job description for the superintendent; a description that is usually contained in an employment contract. Regardless of the details, every superintendent is responsible to a board of education. Every superintendent has overall supervision responsibilities for the district's budget, personnel, and instructional program.


California Employment Opportunities for Superintendents


During the calendar year 1990, 105 California school districts announced an opening for the chief executive

officer (Job Information Survey, 1990). The announcements varied greatly as to compensation, size of district, and socioeconomic settings, but job requirements were strikingly similar. An analysis of the qualifications, competencies, and skills expected of applicants by boards of education helps define the position of superintendent.


Education and Credentials


California presents the paradox of requiring an administrative credential to serve as an assistant principal,

principal, or assistant superintendent, but not for the superintendency. Nevertheless, each job announcement posted in 1990 required an administrative credential. All the districts called for a master's degree; only a few required a doctorate. However, several larger districts listed a doctorate as desirable.




Experience requirements varied with the type of district announcing the vacancy. California districts use a

variety of organizational patterns. For example, elementary districts may contain grades kindergarten through sixth, or kindergarten through eighth. To accommodate children who leave an elementary district, high school districts have matching configurations with grades seven through twelve, nine through twelve, or other patterns to receive students leaving the feeder elementary districts. In addition, there are unified districts that encompass all grades from kindergarten through twelfth.


The experience required of superintendent candidates reflected the grade pattern in the districts. The elementary districts commonly required teaching and administrative experience at the elementary and middle school grades, whereas high school districts included secondary teaching experience as a job requirement. A common statement among unified districts was that preference will be given to candidates with service at elementary and secondary levels. All districts, except for the very smallest, included a prerequisite for site level experience as a principal. Larger districts included a requirement for district level experience as an assistant superintendent.


Professional Competencies for Superintendents


Problem-Solving Skills


Problem-solving skills appeared near the top in every job announcement. Problem-solving is the primary and most time-consuming task of the leader in any organization. Eventually all major school problems will reach the superintendent's desk. It can be estimated that within a typical day, a superintendent will be asked to solve as many as fifty problems. The scope of problems ranges from minutiae to those that literally deal with life and death. Within one hour, a superintendent may meet with an irate parent who is dissatisfied with the way a principal solved a minor discipline problem--and be called to the scene of an accident where children have been injured or killed.


Lippitt (1969) identified six basic elements of problem-solving. The steps in this model are illustrated in

developing the district's annual budget.


  1. Identifying the problem. The problem of developing an annual budget is not new. As needs, wishes, and desires are identified, it soon becomes apparent that costs exceed anticipated income. The problem then becomes how to balance expenditures with income.
  2. Diagnosing the problem. The next step in the problem-solving model requires a detailed analysis of anticipated income and desired expenditures.
  3. Retrieving related knowledge and discussing its implications for overcoming the problem. In most districts, step three, as applied to the budget process, consumes an enormous amount of staff time. This is the information-gathering phase. Every effort must be made to project future income with great precision. Yet, in school districts, income projection is an imprecise science at best, because a district's income is not under the district's immediate control. Other governmental agencies, such as the county, state, and federal government, provide school revenues. For example, over 20 federal and an even larger number of state categorical programs provide funds for local school district operations. The funding of each of these programs varies from year to year and is dependent on a number of factors, including budget allocations by Congress or the California legislature. The local district has greater control over expenditures than income, but precision is also difficult when predicting the cost of utilities, maintenance, negotiated salary agreements, health benefits, and many other items associated with the operation of the district.
  4. Forming alternatives to action. After all pertinent budget information has been collected, the superintendent and staff develop a series of alternatives designed to balance the budget. Usually these focus on reducing projected expenditures so that they will fall within projected income. Alternatives may include postponing needed maintenance, reducing clerical and custodial services, or increasing class size. If projected expenditures greatly exceed projected income, alternatives may include sizeable deductions in personnel and a decision to terminate employees. Less common are alternatives designed to increase income. Possibilities may include a bond or tax election, grant writing, or an educational foundation. Such proposals typically receive less attention than cost cutting because they face formidable legal limits and, at least in recent years, have rarely represented significant sums. Nevertheless, an important aspect of forming alternatives is to look beyond the apparent boundaries of a situation to create new ideas.
  5. Testing the feasibility of alternatives. Once budget alternatives have been developed, the superintendent has an obligation to communicate the possible scenarios to the classified and teaching staff, as well as to the board of education. Each staff member and employee group is asked to consider the implications of the proposed budget alternatives and their effect on classroom and district operations. From these discussions emerge preferences and priorities to guide the final decision.
  6. Adopting and implementing the selected alternative. The final step in problem-solving, as applied to budget development, is to present the various budget alternatives to the board of education for consideration, decision, and adoption. The annual budget then becomes a guide or blueprint for district activities during the ensuing school year. This example, in which the superintendent and staff utilize effective problem-solving skills to develop the annual budget, reaches closure only momentarily when the budget is formally adopted by the board of education. Problem-solving is often a cycle; certainly budget development is an ongoing process. The budget is amended throughout the year as income is recalculated or needs and costs change. However, the budget is only one of the problems to be faced. The superintendent is also confronted daily with situations that require superb listening skills and the ability to generate and weigh alternatives quickly before reaching a decision. Unfortunately, the busy executive often lacks the time or resources to collect all relevant data prior to action. Thus a problem-solving model is altered, and sometimes abbreviated, as it is applied to unique situations.


Communication Skills


School boards recognize outstanding communication skills as a necessity for the school district's chief executive. Indeed, this qualification was listed in every job announcement. It has been estimated that an administrator spends approximately 90 percent of his or her time attending meetings and keeping appointments, writing letters or reports, or participating in some other form of oral or written communication (Konnert & Augenstein, 1990). Leaders communicate at all times, and the more effective the communication, the more effective the leadership (Bennis & Nanus, 1985).


Probably no executive in private industry is required to communicate with so vast and diverse a range of

individuals and audiences as a school superintendent. A typical day might include the following activities.

Note the individuals and audiences involved.

7:30 a.m. Meets with the local service club, whose members represent the business and professional community.

8:30 a.m. Spends a few minutes with the secretary dictating letters and planning the next board agenda.

9:00 a.m. Meets with the Assistant Superintendent for Personnel and an attorney to prepare for a scheduled negotiating session with the teachers' union.

10:15 a.m. Travels to the Transportation Department to look at a new bus just delivered to the district; spends a few minutes with bus drivers and mechanics in small talk and hearing comments on the merits of the new vehicle.

10:50 a.m. Visits an Advanced Placement Senior English class at the high school to discuss censorship and freedom of the press, as requested by the students.

12:00 noon Eats lunch in the high school faculty room and engages in several conversations, some of which are professional in nature, while others are more personal chats about movies, vacation plans, or other topics of interest.

1:05 p.m. Meets with Superintendent's Cabinet, which includes assistant superintendents and principals. The superintendent chairs the group and leads discussion of a number of important topics on the cabinet agenda, including preparation for student graduation exercises, tentative plans for implementing year-round education, and a request from the local assemblyman for a list of the district's educational priorities.

3:00 p.m. Attends and testifies at a grievance hearing; set because a custodian has filed an age discrimination complaint against the district.

4:00 p.m. Returns to the office to answer a dozen or more phone calls from a variety of constituents, including parents, board members, local business owners, and several staff members. The superintendent dictates requests for letters of reference and starts developing agenda items for the next board meeting.

7:00 p.m. Attends a Parent-Teacher Association meeting at one of the elementary schools and is asked to make a few comments about district plans for year-round schools. At the break, the superintendent exchanges information with two board members and a number of parents about several issues, particularly the year-round school. During this discussion, some individuals express enthusiasm for year-round schools, and others express strong opposition to the program.


As the schedule demonstrates, a superintendent is engaged in almost constant communication with a wide variety of individuals and audiences. He or she must be able to move smoothly from discussing freedom of the press with gifted students and a highly educated teacher to discussing the merits of energy conservation devices on a new bus with mechanics. The effective superintendent is able to adapt his or her language to the audience and has finely tuned listening and speaking skills.


Developing Board Policies


All the 1990 job announcements placed high priority on development of board policies as a major skill requirement. The function of the board of education is to legislate; and the job of the superintendent, to

serve as the executive officer. The California Education Code also clearly establishes responsibility for legislation, as recorded in board policies, as a duty of the board of education.


When a board adopts policy, it acts as a lawmaking body. The board's policy provides direction for educational priorities of a community. Policies provide a historical, written record of board decisions and

enable a staff to adopt a proactive, rather than a reactive, posture. For example, a clearly defined policy

regarding employees who have an infectious disease will enable the administrative staff to act promptly and consistently, should such a situation arise.


Numerous sections throughout the Education Code require the board of education to develop policy. As the state legislature has become more prescriptive in its directives to local school districts, it has found requirements for board policy an effective means of monitoring compliance. In many instances, the

Education Code also requires a local board to review a given policy annually; a process that increases the likelihood of compliance. For example, each California board is required to adopt a policy certifying

personnel who may evaluate the teaching staff. In addition, the board is required to annually review and re-certify this policy.


It is generally agreed that policy setting is the most important function of the board of education. However,

it is equally clear that the superintendent has responsibility for developing policy for consideration by the board. If ever a superintendent needs to be proactive, the development of board policies is a case in point. The time when the board, staff, or community is engaged in a controversy is not the time to develop a policy to handle the situation. Rather, problem areas need to be anticipated and policies adopted at a time when the board, community, and staff can address an issue calmly and without undue emotion. A superintendent often identifies

potential areas of conflict and policy needs through professional reading and contacts with superintendents in other districts.


In California, several resources, including consultants, are available to assist in the time-consuming task of

drafting board policies. The California School Boards Association has staff members who specialize in

developing model district policies. For a modest fee the policies are furnished to districts as they are developed to meet new legal requirements or newly emerging issues in California schools. This

association and others also review a district's policies to ensure that they are up-to-date and in compliance

with legal requirements.


Maintaining Superintendent-Board Relations


Each 1990 announcement for a California superintendency contained a statement regarding the importance of an excellent relationship with the governing board. Some of the announcements included statements similar to the following:



The skill of maintaining excellent relationships with and confidence of the board is probably the highest priority for a superintendent who wishes to maintain his or her effectiveness and leadership in the district.


Four hundred sixty-eight California districts announced a vacancy for the superintendency between 1986 and 1989 (Giles & Giles, 1990). These figures suggest that ten percent or more of California districts seek a superintendent each year. The study found that 20.5 percent of superintendents left their current positions to accept other superintendencies, while 15.8 percent took lesser administrative positions. Another 18.4 percent resigned for planned voluntary retirement, while 6.6 percent were reported as having been forced to take an unplanned, involuntary retirement. Approximately one-third (38.7 percent) left the superintendency entirely because of disharmony between the superintendent and the board. Every effort needs to be made by the superintendent and governing board to maintain effective working relationships. Several suggestions for maintaining excellent working relationships include:


1. Represent the board's will. As spokesman for the board, the superintendent may have to present board

policies or regulations with which he or she disagrees. Once a superintendent has made a recommendation

as professionally and forcefully as possible, it is incumbent upon him or her to carry out the board's decision in a straightforward and effective fashion.


Under no circumstances should the superintendent indicate that something is being done because the board mandated it. Occasionally, the superintendent must stoically accept criticism for board direction or policy. Nevertheless, any doubts about the policy should not be publicly discussed or displayed. Any different action runs the risk of loss of confidence by the board.


2. Carefully plan the board agenda. The effective superintendent must be skilled in researching and planning the board agenda in great detail and in the most thoughtful manner. Concerns of all board members should be addressed with great sensitivity to issues and personalities involved. Lack of attention to detail in the agenda, or poorly written items, may lead to discord and disharmony among board members and concern about the competency of the superintendent. The entire board agenda and support materials should be delivered to board members well in advance of the meeting.


3. No surprises. Effective boards and superintendents establish an agreement of no surprises. Nothing makes a board member as upset with the superintendent as hearing at the supermarket that a popular

principal plans to resign, or that there was a student demonstration at the high school.


The effective superintendent utilizes every communication avenue to keep the board informed of all

significant or sensitive issues in the district. The phrase, "Notify the board before they hear it from someone else," should be posted in every superintendent's office. Superintendents should be aware of the issues and

decisions that may cause controversy and alert board members so they will be prepared for the inevitable

phone calls. When things go wrong, critics claim surprise and disclaim responsibility on grounds that they were not informed.


4. Remember who is boss. California superintendents serve at the pleasure of the board. The effective superintendent needs to keep in mind that board meetings should be conducted by the board president

with participation by the board. There is an old adage: If board meetings are drama, then the board president is the star. It is the task of the board president, not the superintendent, to move through the agenda with proper participation by other board members and the public. However, many superintendents meet with the board president prior to each meeting to review the agenda and discuss strategies for managing difficult items (Bisso, 1988).


There are a number of clear danger signs in the superintendent-board relationship:


1. Weak board rapport. The perception that a superintendent is not working in harmony with the board is a

clear danger sign. If the board believes that the superintendent is not open to criticism and not following board policy or instructions, the superintendent's tenure is probably in jeopardy.


2. Lack of staff respect. A staff that is not supportive of the superintendent results in loss of confidence by the board. The staff must have respect for the superintendent and his or her leadership ability. If respect and support have eroded, the system loses cohesion and the chain of command breaks down.


3. Poor communication skills. Failure to communicate effectively puts the superintendent at a serious disadvantage. Poor directives lead to confusion and loss of confidence. For example, the effective superintendent must take the most complicated regulations from federal or state agencies and communicate these requirements to the board, staff, and community in a manner that is easily understood.


4. Lack of evaluation procedures. Superintendents whose performance evaluation is given verbally or not at all stand a greater risk of dismissal than those who have written evaluations from their boards (Fultz, 1976).


Human Relations Skills


No superintendent will survive without exceptional human relations skills. The average citizen would define this skill as the ability to get along with people. To put it another way, the most important activity of a supervisor is to help people within an organization to become as skillful and effective as possible (Daresh, 1989).


Human relations skills were important in the past, but they are imperative today. One of the most important skills of an executive is the ability to get along with people. Managers generally rate this ability more vital than intelligence, decisiveness, or knowledge of job requirements. Because of the vast numbers of students, parents, and staff who interact with the superintendent, the ability to get along with others is primary.


Effective human relations skills are a prerequisite for the successful leader. An effective leader must possess an interpersonal competence, particularly the sensitivity to understand the effect of one's own behavior on others and how one's own personality shapes his particular leadership style and value system (Bennis, 1970). The successful superintendent must have a keen understanding of the culture and needs of various individuals and groups. An angry parent may not need an instant solution, but may only need the opportunity to communicate his or her concerns to the superintendent to feel that needs are being addressed. The superintendent must be adept at building coalitions to support schools and programs and be masterful in helping groups arrive at consensus. Finally, the superintendent who enjoys the job, who likes students, who can turn lemons into lemonade, who has a keen sense of humor and does not take himself or herself too seriously, is likely to be rated outstanding in human relations skills.


Creating a Vision


School boards expect a leader who can create a vision. A typical leadership vision statement might indicate

that the superintendent has a vision of where the district might go and what the district might become; with the ability to articulate it, to incorporate other points of view, and to decisively lead the district. School boards recognize that effective superintendents have a personal set of values, beliefs, and expectations that they can communicate effectively to staff and community. The superintendent must have the capacity to move people to action, to communicate persuasively, and to strengthen the confidence of followers (Gardner, 1989).


A study by Murphy and Hallinger (1988) of highly effective California school districts found student performance related to the superintendent's clearly established goals and expectations for student achievement indicated that:


  1. Improving student learning was the top priority in these districts, and the usual excuses for not attaining high levels of achievement attained were absent. The superintendents in the 12 districts had high expectations for student achievement and expressed goals such as improve test scores, reach the 99th percentile on the standardized tests, have the best district in the valley, or best in the state.
  2. The superintendents in the 12 districts had a positive attitude toward solving problems. Problems were viewed as issues to be addressed rather than barriers to action. None of the superintendents were prone to excuses to justify inaction or to explain lack of achievement.
  3. Superintendents in these districts took a direct leadership role in curriculum and instruction. They were key players in setting goals and supervising and evaluating principals. About two-thirds of the 12 superintendents were responsible for introducing a preferred teaching strategy into the curriculum. They made numerous visits to school sites and conveyed the importance of a strong instructional program.
  4. Student achievement was monitored personally by these superintendents. Student test scores were taken seriously, and other indicators of student achievement, including student attendance rates and vandalism, were also carefully monitored.


It is imperative that the successful superintendent sets the direction and tone of the school district. The superintendent holds a clear set of expectations that are forcefully articulated to staff and administrators. Central office staff and principals are held accountable for the achievement of objectives. The superintendent models a commitment to instructional improvement and knows what is happening in the district. The chief executive places a high priority on student achievement and nurtures instructional improvements. As a leader in the district, he or she is highly visible in schools and classrooms.


Competency in School Finance


Each job announcement included a requirement for understanding school finance, budgeting, and business operations. Unless the candidate has served as a business manager or assistant superintendent for business, this area is probably the most difficult for the new superintendent. School finance is also an area that results in he dismissal of many superintendents. For example, one of the job announcements included the following statement: Presently the district is operating on a very tight budget which will require a high degree of planning and developing a course of action to remedy the problem. An applicant to that district is either a candidate highly competent in budgeting and finance, or a very foolish individual.


Specific responsibilities of the superintendent in the business arena are complex and include the major tasks of financial planning, accounting, auditing, cost analysis, and purchasing. In smaller districts, the superintendent is also responsible for direct supervision of food service, transportation, and operation and maintenance of school plants. In California, the entire gamut of rules and regulations for school construction is often a major consideration for superintendents and governing boards.


In preparing for the superintendency, aspiring administrators should seek opportunities to gain expertise in this most critical job responsibility. The superintendent's role is to plan activities and manage resources effectively so as to achieve district goals within available means. It is imperative that the superintendent constantly monitor the financial health of the district and plan for the prudent use of the district's financial resources.


Expertise in Curriculum and Instruction


Several job announcements contained the following statement: Has a commitment to academic excellence and an ability to lead the district in curriculum development, implementation, and evaluation. A superintendent must maintain the role of chief instructional leader of the district. Not only does the superintendent establish the direction and tone of the district; the successful superintendent must also model excellent teaching skills and demonstrate a strong interest in student learning. Superintendents visit classrooms, monitor student progress, and hold principals accountable for student achievement. As they manage meetings, explain courses of action, and write recommendations, superintendents apply teaching strategies in new settings.


The superintendent should be a strong child advocate. Other staff members may have vested interests and be unable to see or evaluate the big picture. For example, a high school English teacher may be very disturbed about students missing part of the English class to attend an assembly on drug education, or may resent funds being used to support a strong music or athletic program. It is the responsibility of the superintendent to assist staff in providing a comprehensive education for all students. The superintendent is responsible for working with staff and the board to develop specific instructional goals for the district and an evaluation system to ensure that goals are being met.


The superintendent also has a major role in dealing with board members in the instructional arena. Boards rely on the superintendent to possess strong competencies in curriculum, the area in which they typically feel least comfortable. They may also become preoccupied with financial, business, or personnel matters, to the exclusion of the instructional program. One technique to keep the board focused on instruction is to include a curriculum or instruction item on each board agenda. Many superintendents schedule regular presentations by staff and students to provide board members with an overview of a grade level or subject area curriculum. Just as superintendents are required to present financial reports to the board; it is crucial that they present the board and the community with reports of academic achievement of students.


Competency in Personnel Matters


Superintendents need expertise in personnel management relative to the selection, development, and evaluation of staff. Experience in collective bargaining is an additional skill needed for effective personnel practices. Personnel management usually includes the following components:


1. Personnel planning. The superintendent and staff should develop a plan to meet current and future personnel needs. This task includes projecting future student enrollment and expected turnover due to resignations and retirements. This plan is also used to project future staffing needs. The plan must also be

closely coupled with projected future curriculum developments, anticipating expansion of music, science, or other curriculum areas, or the addition of library or other support services.


2. Recruitment. Once staffing needs have been identified, the next task for the personnel director or

superintendent in a smaller district is the actual recruitment of a qualified staff. Part of the planning process should include identifying potential candidates among students and existing staff within the district. Many districts sponsor a Future Teachers Organization at the secondary school, encouraging young people to consider teaching as a profession. These same young people may do their teaching fieldwork in the district and become welcome candidates when a vacancy occurs. Another source of potential teacher candidates is the teacher substitute list. Principals have opportunities to observe substitutes in action and to assess each individual's potential as a permanent employee. In addition to candidates within the district, the successful superintendent will establish a close working relationship with teacher-training colleges and universities as a source for teacher candidates.


3. Selection. A strong case should be made for the most rigorous standards of selection. Selection errors are

costly not only in effect on students, but also in dollars spent for inadequate service, and in time required to document the employee's deficiencies as the prelude to dismissal.


4. Staff development. Staff development is often neglected in school districts. The amount budgeted for inservice programs is woefully inadequate by comparison with private industry. Districts infrequently provide release time for developing new curriculum or reviewing new instructional strategies. Teachers are rarely given time away from the school and their students; instead, they are expected to participate in staff development programs on their own time.


5. Evaluation. The successful superintendent ensures that a clear, concise evaluation program is in place

for all personnel. Staff should be extensively involved in planning work performance objectives and developing criteria for measuring success.


6. Negotiations. Employees in all but the smallest of California school districts are represented by an exclusive bargaining agent. Collective bargaining is the process of negotiating between management and

employees on the terms and conditions of employment. Due to the complexity of the laws, rules, and regulations regarding collective bargaining, most California districts employ an attorney to assist in the

process. Again, except in very small districts, the superintendent is usually advised not to sit directly at the table during negotiations. However, as the direct representative of the governing board, he or she must be closely attuned to the process.


Evaluation of the Superintendent


One of the most important responsibilities of the board of education is regular evaluation of the superintendent's performance. Evaluation of the superintendent really begins with the board's selection of

an individual to serve as the chief executive officer of the district. The board has determined the skills and characteristics that are important in that district. They have chosen someone they trust, someone whom they believe will exhibit the educational leadership necessary for the schools in that community. The board has a responsibility to ensure success for the new superintendent; therefore, it makes sense to review expectations and progress toward meeting those expectations at regular intervals.


The professional organization representing superintendents, the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), and the California School Boards Association (CSBA), representing board members, strongly urge superintendents and boards to mutually develop formal procedures for a regular review of the superintendent's responsibilities and performance. Model contract agreements between the superintendent and board have been developed by the two professional organizations, both of which suggest that procedures for formal evaluation should be included within the employment contract. The rationale for a formal evaluation includes the following issues:


1. Meets legal requirements. The California Education Code requires that all certificated personnel be evaluated. Section 44660 requires the board to establish a uniform system for evaluation of the performance of all certificated employees. Legal opinions vary as to whether this requirement applies to superintendents. Clearly, if a district employs a non-certificated superintendent, the code section would not apply.


2. Identifies priorities and responsibilities. The roles and responsibilities of the superintendent and board must be clarified to avoid misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations. A major function of the evaluation process should be to establish, clearly and forcefully, both long and short range priorities for the district. For example, should the superintendent focus on strengthening the academic pre-college program, or should greater emphasis be given to vocational education? Clearly established goals set by the board and superintendent will focus the superintendent's energy and ensure effective use of human and financial resources.


3. Establishes accountability for carrying out district policy. Once objectives are established, the evaluation process assists in determining how well the district is accomplishing its mission. The evaluation process provides an excellent opportunity for both board and superintendent to take stock of the district. At this

time, the superintendent can share information with board members to deepen their insight into school issues. He or she can alert the board to potential problems before they become a crisis.


4. Provides feedback to superintendent on performance. The evaluation process offers a forum in which to

promote communication and strengthen working relationships between the board and superintendent. It is an opportunity to identify strengths and weaknesses and to identify steps toward improved performance. Should the superintendent's performance be unsatisfactory, the evaluation also satisfies a legal requirement that the superintendent be given written notice of non-renewal at least 45 days prior to the expiration of his or her contract. If the notice is not given, the contract is automatically renewed for the same length of time and with the same conditions as the expiring one (Education Code 35031).


5. Provides a basis for reemployment and salary increases. The formal evaluation is usually followed by renewal or termination of the superintendent's contract. Mutually agreeable revisions or amendments are considered. This is also the time for the board to consider a salary adjustment and to review the mileage allowance and other benefits accorded their chief executive officer (California School Boards Association,



There are several formal processes from which a board may select when developing a system for evaluation of the superintendent. This selection should be given thorough consideration by the board, utilizing suggestions solicited from the superintendent. The system is best developed for long-term use, as it will probably become the board's basic format for future evaluations of the superintendent.


California School Boards Association (CSBA, 1985) suggests five types of formal evaluation instruments:


1. Checklist. The checklist provides a specific list of activities or functions that the board expects the superintendent to complete. The advantages of this process are the relative ease of completion and quick

identification of differences in perception among individual board members. Its major disadvantages include reliance on personal judgments, ambiguity in the rating scale, and findings that may represent opinion, rather than fact.


2. List of traits and skills. This instrument is similar to the checklist, but focuses on personal characteristics

of the superintendent, rather than activities or duties. It has the same advantages and disadvantages as the checklist. In addition, however, it may indicate that the superintendent is the type of person the board wants without assessing progress toward expected results.


3. Written essay. As the phrase suggests, each board member writes a narrative listing the superintendent's

accomplishments, strengths, and weaknesses. They also suggest areas for improvement. The president of the board usually has the responsibility of summarizing the major points indicated by individual members. The advantages of this system are that it forces individual board members to do a broad assessment of the superintendent's accomplishments (or inadequacies) and provides a rich source for discussion with the superintendent. Its disadvantages include an unequal weighing of procedural and personal matters, and the difficulty of synthesizing thoughts that are variously expressed and organized. In addition, board members are sometimes reluctant to record their thoughts on paper.


4. Management by Objectives (MBO). This system directly addresses a list of objectives agreed upon by the

board and superintendent. It requires a careful analysis of district needs, usually prior to the beginning of a school year. At the end of the reporting period, the superintendent is responsible for providing the board with documentation demonstrating his or her progress in meeting the objectives. The advantage of the MBO system is that it helps clarify board expectations and provides specific priorities for the superintendent. The disadvantages include the risk of assessing program achievement rather than the superintendent's performance. For example, it may be difficult to determine whether students scored high or low on an assessment test as a result of the superintendent's performance, or for some other reason. An additional disadvantage is that the MBO system typically calls for a significant amount of record-keeping.


5. Performance appraisal. A performance appraisal instrument combines managerial job skills, personal

traits, and achievement of objectives. The evaluation addresses both personal skills of the superintendent

and board objectives. The advantages of performance appraisal combine the advantages of all the systems

listed above. Its disadvantage is the extended time and effort necessary to develop and implement the

process (CSBA, 1985).


Outside the formal procedures, informal evaluation of the superintendent is a continual process that occurs every day. Board members, staff, students, and the community appraise the superintendent at each encounter. This appraisal takes place in conversations, at board meetings, and in social contacts. Every time a board member reads the paper, or receives a phone call from a parent or citizen, his or her image of the superintendent grows and changes. The superintendent's conduct at a football game, at a Parent-Teacher meeting, even in a local restaurant contributes to an overall impression that will be reflected in formal evaluation. An alert superintendent who possesses good human relations skills is constantly aware of impressions received by others and is not surprised to realize that these impressions not only play a role in effective leadership, but also slip into the formal evaluation process.


Superintendent's Salary and Compensation


Although the salaries of school superintendents have increased dramatically over the last two decades,

compensation is still considerably below that of an equivalent position in private industry. In 1990, the New York City Superintendent earned the highest salary among chief school officials--$195,000 annually (Lunenburg & Ornstein, 1991). The Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent received a salary of $164,555 in 1990-1991 (Los Angeles Times, 1991). Annual salaries for other California superintendencies ranged from a low of $40,000 in Mattole Union School District with a student enrollment of 107 students to a high of $102,000 in Mt. Diablo Unified School District; then in excess of 30,000 students (Association of California School Administrators, 1990).


By contrast, a 1989 issue of USA Today reported that 768 business executives earned an average of $1.13

million in salary and bonuses. With the addition of long-term compensation, fringe benefits, and stock options, the average pay of these executives jumped to $2.03 million per year (USA Today, 1989). If responsibilities, budgets, and numbers of personnel are compared, the superintendent of a district with 25,000 or more students matches a chief executive officer in private industry who receives a salary of $350,000 to $400,000. In the 16 largest school districts with a student enrollment of 100,000 or more, a salary comparable to that in private industry would fall in the range of $500,000 to $750,000 (Lunenburg & Ornstein, 1991).


Why do superintendents receive so much less compensation than their counterparts in private industry? An obvious reason is that the superintendent is paid from tax dollars. Elected officials are understandably reluctant to increase salaries in the face of continuing protests about high taxes. Often, the elected official who decides the compensation of the superintendent earns a lesser salary. This same board member may have little real knowledge of the requirements or demands of a managerial position. Moreover, many California school superintendents earn more than other public officials, including the police and fire chiefs, the city manager, and the mayor in the same community. California superintendents of the larger districts receive a higher salary than the State Superintendent of Schools and the Governor. Finally, an argument can be made that most California superintendents came from the ranks of the teaching profession where salaries have been modest in comparison to other professions. If the superintendent's compensation greatly exceeds the salaries paid to the highest paid teacher, conflict and resentment may ensue, interfering with the superintendent's ability to inspire staff with his leadership.




The superintendent is the single most important position in the public schools. It is this individual whose influence extends from the curriculum to the athletic field. The superintendent affects the climate of the school district and ultimately the very nature of the community. It is because of this tremendous influence that it is imperative that the superintendent reflect the diverse needs of the community and demonstrate the quality of leadership that will meet the challenge of the tremendous changes that are taking place in California.


The superintendent must be an effective manager without losing touch with the instructional program and the needs of children. The successful superintendent will be someone who can forcefully articulate a vision for the schools and then work with widely divergent groups to bring this vision to reality. Because our communities expect schools to be sensitive to their needs and expectations, only a leader who has the ability to create community support for the schools and involve others in making decisions about schools will be successful superintendents.


Discussion Questions


  1. Briefly discuss the three stages in the development of the superintendency.
  2. Develop a profile of the typical American superintendent: age, race, gender, marital status, and experience.
  3. Discuss the importance of developing board policies and the role of the superintendent in this endeavor.
  4. Why is the superintendent generally advised not to sit directly at the collective bargaining table?
  5. Informal evaluation of the superintendent occurs on a regular basis. Give examples of this type of evaluation.


Suggested Projects or Activities


  1. Interview a superintendent and complete a profile of the individual: age, gender, marital status, race, education, and experience. How does he or she view his or her role?
  2. Attend a school board meeting and critique the leadership role of the superintendent. Particularly note his or her interactions and relationships with board members.
  3. Review a job announcement for the superintendency and note the primary skills and competencies required by the board of education. Review your own background in relation to the board's expectations.
  4. Review the Education Code and locate references to the school superintendent. Note important points and the sections where they are stated.
  5. Review three board agendas and analyze the attention devoted to instruction as opposed to personnel or school finance. What do you conclude?
  6. Obtain a copy of the model procedures for evaluation of the superintendent as recommended by CSBA and ACSA. Compare and contrast.


Suggested Readings


Bennis, W. (1970). American bureaucracy. New York: Alpine.


Bennis, W., & Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: Strategies for taking charge. New York: Harper & Row.


Bisso, J. M. (1988, June). Board president: Here's how I stay friends with the superintendent. American School Board Journal, 175(6), 38-39.


Cunningham, L. L., & Hentges, J. T. (1982). The American school superintendent 1982: A summary report. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.


Daresh, J. C. (1989). Supervision as a proactive process. White Plains, NY: Longman.


Fultz, D. A. (1975, September). Eight ways superintendents lose their jobs. American School Board Journal, 163(9), 42-51.


Gardner, J. (1989, February). Leadership: attributes and context. NASSP Bulletin, 514, 58.


Giles, D., & Giles, S. (1990, Winter). Where do all the superintendents go? California School Board Journal, 30-35.


Griffiths, D. E. (1966). The school superintendent. New York: Center for Applied Research in Education.


Konnert, M. W., & Augenstein, J. J. (1990). The superintendency in the nineties. Lancaster, PA: Technomic.


Lippitt, G. (1969). Organizational renewal. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.


Murphy, J., & Hallinger, P. (1988, January/February). Characteristics of instructionally effective school districts. Journal of Educational Research, 81(3), 175-181.


Ornstein, A. C. (1991). Education administration: Concepts and practices. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


Wilson, R. (1960). The modern school superintendent. New York: Harper & Row.




Association of California School Administrators. (1990). Job Information Survey. Sacramento, CA: Author.


Bennis, W. (1970). American bureaucracy. New York: Alpine.


Bennis, W., & Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: Strategies for taking charge. New York: Harper & Row.


Bisso, J. M. (1988, June). Board president: Here's how I stay friends with the superintendent. American School Board Journal, 175(6), 38-39.


California Public Schools Directory. (1989). Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Education, Office of State Printing.


California School Boards Association. (1985). Evaluating your superintendent. Sacramento, CA: Author.


Cunningham, L. L., & Hentges, J. T. (1982). The American school superintendent 1982: A summary report.

Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.


Daresh, J. C. (1989). Supervision as a proactive process. White Plains, NY: Longman.


Education Codes of California. (1991). West's Annotated Education Codes. St. Paul, MN: West.


Education Week. (1988, January 20). Highlights of Administrator's Survey.


Fultz, D. A. (1975, September). Eight ways superintendents lose their jobs. American School Board Journal, 163(9), 42-51.


Gardner, J. (1989, February). Leadership: attributes and context. NASSP Bulletin, 514, 58.


Giles, D., & Giles, S. (1990). Quest. Chula Vista, CA: Giles & Associates.


Giles, D., & Giles, S. (1990, Winter). Where do all the superintendents go? California School Board Journal, 30-35.


Griffiths, D. E. (1966). The school superintendent. New York: Center for Applied Research in Education. How much top execs made in '88. (1989, April). USA Today, p. 23.


Konnert, M. W., & Augenstein, J. J. (1990). The superintendency in the nineties. Lancaster, PA: Technomic.


Lippitt, G. (1969). Organizational renewal. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. Los Angeles Times. (June 7, 1991).


Lunenburg, F. C., & Ornstein, A. C. (1991). Educational administration: Concepts and practices. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


Murphy, J., & Hallinger, P. (1988, January/February). Characteristics of instructionally effective school districts. Journal of Educational Research, 81(3), 175-181.


Wilson, R. (1960). The modern school superintendent. New York: Harper & Row.


Wirt, F. W., & Kirst, M. W. (1990). The politics of education - Schools in conflict (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: