Learning curve for school superintendents can be steep

BY JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

Lansing — Like many superintendents, Rick Seebeck’s first few years weren’t easy, and he leaned on others for help.

“I reached out to other superintendents that had much more experience than I did,” said the 13-year Gladwin County superintendent. “I’ve had good strong board presidents that have worked with me and I’ve developed good relationships with other board members.”

While the length of Seebeck’s tenure at Gladwin is unusual, his early inexperience is not.

Since 2013, inexperience has increased significantly among the pool of applicants for superintendent at Michigan schools.

The number of experienced superintendents applying for positions fell from 33 percent to 25 percent. At the same time, the number of applicants almost doubled from 20 a year to 35.

That makes things tricky for school boards picking their next superintendent.

“Some of the districts are so complex,” said Donna Oser, the director of leadership development at the Michigan Association of School Boards. “With fewer resources and higher expectations, being able to manage a financially challenged or academically challenged district can be hard for a new superintendent.”

Distaste for 80-hour work weeks is compounded by what the association considers to be the biggest reason superintendents leave: the quality of their relationship with the school board.

It’s a key problem with implications for teachers and students.

“The relationship between the superintendent and the school board is so important to the success of a district,” Oser said. “The board needs to be committed to that individual and give them professional development to help them make decisions. That doesn’t always happen.”

The state has nearly 600 superintendents. About 80 vacancies open each year. Typically the average tenure of a superintendent is about three to five years.

It’s a job where experience is vital, Oser said.

“If the foundation is laid and they have the right supports, they will do fine,” she said. “If someone wasn’t in the position before and they’re not prepared, it’s going to be problematic.”

The inexperienced applicant pool has prompted many training programs for both potential and new supervisors.

“Being a first-year (superintendent) can be an incredible challenge, depending on the district you’re in,” said Chris Wigent, the executive director of Michigan Association of School Administrators. “Just like any position you’re new to, you might not see challenges coming.”

That’s why the group started a mentor coaching program in 2016. Called Sustain Excellence, it pairs current or retired superintendents with new ones. The goal is to introduce them to challenges they may face while developing leadership skills.

“The neat thing is they really bond together,” said program instructor Cindy Ruble. “And in that cohort you have seasoned superintendents and brand-ew ones, so they really network a lot.”

The first year was a big success, with a strong blend of old and new superintendents  participating, Ruble said. “At lunch they would get together at tables and discuss strengthening school board relationships and building collaborative negotiating processes.”

The relationships that build among superintendents is the heart of the program, she said. The veteran superintendents and the association’s instructors become important resources for the newbies.

Scot Graden, a nine-year superintendent in Saline, said that when he started the job he asked a more experienced superintendent from Chelsea for advice.

“The decisions you make are very visible within most communities,” Graden said. “Early on you may not grasp the complexities of the job so it really helps to have someone to call for help.”

New superintendents could face major problems, like recommending closing a building or shutting down a high school. “It has a lot of impact on the community, so it only makes sense to talk to people who have done that before,” Wigent said.

The Michigan Leadership Institute, a private consulting business that offers leadership services to public schools, has hosted a rigorous academy for superintendent preparation for the past 18 years. It’s designed to be intensive because not all potential candidates understand the workload of a superintendent.

“A lot of applicants are administrators that have worked with the superintendent and think they know what to expect,” said Michael Wilmot, the president and CEO of the institute. “Often they’re shocked by how much work actually needs to be done.”

Stability in the position has a direct impact on student achievement, Wilmot said. So when someone interested in the job who attends the academy decides they’re not cut out for the work and pursues another career, it’s seen as positive.

“Quite frankly it’s good for the profession when someone decides they don’t want to do it,” Wilmot said.

Wilmot’s assertion is backed up by a study by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, a nonprofit that funds education research. It found a superintendent’s longevity has a positive effect on the average academic achievement of students in the district. Those effects manifest themselves as early as two years into the superintendent’s tenure.

Oser said, “There’s a correlation between the success of the superintendent and student achievement. It’s in the best interest of the student to make that happen. It’s an investment in them to make the best decisions someone can for a district.”