Tug of War

In many communities, employees and stakeholders believe the superintendent should be the all-knowing expert on the inner-workings of the school district. So when they have a question about finances, facilities, policy, and state reporting, they immediately contact the district office.


However, more and more superintendents enter the field with an instructional leadership mindset. These new age superintendents would rather focus their energy on employee relationships, community engagement, and organizational health as opposed to the managerial "nitty-gritty" the district.

“But if a superintendent doesn’t focus on finances, facilities, policy, and state reporting … then who will?”


All school districts have individuals who are in charge of overseeing the "non-instructional" branches of the district. Often referred to as "directors," these individuals manage departments such as food service, technology, custodial/maintenance, finance, and transportation. Similar to principals running a school building, these directors are responsible for supervising staff, allocating resources, and managing their divisions in such a way that supports systemic operations.


However, conventional school leadership models have hindered the autonomy in these offices. Rather than empower directors to have ownership of their departments, many superintendents stubbornly insist on getting deep in the weeds of these auxiliary offices.


For example, say the director of food service wants to purchase new commercial mixers for each kitchen. Whereas common sense would say trust your director to understand her department needs, some superintendents recall the Black Friday deal they got on their KitchenAid and haggle over the purchases.


Or, say the director of transportation wants to purchase propane-powered school buses as opposed to diesel-powered school buses. While trusting superintendents have faith that their directors understand the newest trends in bussing, skeptical superintendents think their Car and Driver subscription makes them well-equipped to debate the decision.


If you can’t already tell, I'm baffled as to why district leaders waste time questioning these purchases. Certainly, districts must create a system of checks and balances. But rather than expect the superintendent to be the expert, why not ask the director to provide comparable purchase data from other districts? Besides, if directors can't be trusted to make wise purchases ... then why are they still working in your organization?


Speaking of purchases, for years superintendents have been seen as the district finance authority. Even though schools have highly skilled business employees who are fully capable of being the "point people" for financial matters, traditional education practices suggest this is solely the superintendent's role.


While superintendents should certainly have a baseline knowledge of finances, is this where a school leader should be spending most of his or her time? Consider John Hattie’s renowned Effect Size Research. On his list of 256 influences related to student achievement, Finances sits way down at 185 - one spot below Visual/Audio-Visual Methods (184) and just a handful of spots above ... Breastfeeding (227).


Rather than spend time trying to understanding every detail of school finance, shouldn't superintendents' time be spent on more impactful practices such as building teacher self-confidence (1), monitoring the implementation of intervention programs (5), and addressing underperforming staff (12)?


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If district leaders wish to flip the script on their assigned duties, there are several steps they must take to ensure the transition goes smoothly. Here are four ideas to consider:


No Surprises: One of the most important things district leaders must do is share their leadership values and priorities with the school board prior to accepting the job. If a superintendent has a fondness for finance and school construction, great! But if not, they must be honest with the board during the interview process. While it can be tempting to tell the board what they want to hear, in the long run philosophical misalignment is a recipe for disaster.


Empower Staff: Non-instructional directors must feel trusted to make their own decisions. Rather than be micromanaged by controlling supervisors, directors must be empowered to make wise decisions given their extensive knowledge and background. Similar to what can be expected of principals and their buildings, directors should be counted on to be the expert and spokesperson for their departments.


Define Roles: Although it may initially seem like overkill, district leaders must spend time with directors to clearly articulate roles and responsibilities, as well as procedures for communication and decision making. Reflecting on my personal difficulties, it was obvious that I have not spent enough time explaining how my personal philosophies and priorities would impact the work of our staff.


Communicate with Stakeholders: Once roles and procedures have been defined, this information must be frequently communicated to other individuals inside - and outside - the organization. Not only will this help stakeholders know who to contact when questions arise, this transparent approach limits unnecessary confusion while also building trust in the school system.


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In The 8th Habit, Stephen Covey shares, “If you study the underlying roots of almost all communication breakdowns or broken cultures, you’ll find they come from either ambiguous or broken expectations around roles and goals; in other words, who is to do what role and what are the high priority goals of those roles.”


For decades, superintendents have been relied upon to be experts on finance, facilities, policy, and state reporting. However, as more instructionally-minded leaders enter the profession, the superintendent's role is likely to experience momentous change in the coming years.


Progressive superintendents cannot underestimate how these adjustments will impact stakeholders who are used to traditional methods of district leadership. Rather than assume employees and boards will automatically understand their leadership priorities, superintendents must commit time to discuss, define, and communicate these changes.

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