Searching for a quality superintendent
Filling a superintendent vacancy is one of the most important job duties that school board members have on their plates. The superintendent is an integral part of the governance team and a good superintendent will be able to work in harmony with the board to help establish goals for the district and, most importantly, see those goals through to fruition.

The search for a superintendent requires ample dedication of both time and resources to define position criteria, advertise the open position, accept applications, and screen and interview candidates. Saugus Union School District Board President Chris Trunkey faced that challenge when the district’s superintendent announced her retirement to the board last winter. “As board members, I think all of us on our board have full-time jobs,” he explained. “It is hard to find the time that is necessary to be able to conduct a superintendent search, given all of the stakeholder input that was needed and the many meetings that we had that were related just to the search.”

  • A quality superintendent search requires time and resources.
  • Board members should gather stakeholder input and district need during hiring process.
  • A search firm can provide expert guidance in the process.
To ensure that a board finds the best possible candidates to fill a superintendent vacancy, experts recommend using a reputable search firm. Board members come from a variety of backgrounds and often have full-time jobs in addition to their board duties — hiring a search firm assures board members that dedicated experts will conduct a thorough and transparent search that will lead to quality candidates. Trunkey and the Saugus Union SD board knew they couldn’t conduct the search on their own and found the use of a search firm helpful.
Teri Vigil, a trustee with Fall Rivers Joint Unified School District and a CSBA Delegate, has been involved in several superintendent searches, both for her own board and as a consultant with CSBA’s Executive Search Service, delivered by McPherson & Jacobson. “Boards need to find a reputable search firm with a solid background to work with,” she said. “I think it’s important that the firm does a transparent search and engages stakeholders in the process.”
Qualities of an effective superintendent
Once a search firm has been identified, the board next identifies criteria for the position. This can be done in a variety of ways, often beginning with a review of the current superintendent job description and an evaluation of what has or hasn’t been working in the district. An important part of the hiring process is consulting community stakeholders — including other district office staff, assistant superintendents, principals, teachers, parents and community business partners — about the qualities they are looking for in a superintendent and the goals they hope a superintendent will work toward.

Vigil also notes that is important to evaluate the individual needs of a district and the type of leader it is looking for. “As a consultant, I work with the board and we really look at the needs of their specific district. Some are looking for a top-down leader, some are looking for a collaborative leader,” she said. “As a board member myself, I want someone who is honest, who works collaboratively with stakeholders such as our community and the teachers union, and someone that is visible in the community.”

Both Vigil and Trunkey cited thorough vetting and background checks as one of the top benefits of using a search firm. “We were very satisfied with the pool of candidates the search firm brought to us,” Trunkey said.

“Since the search firm has already vetted the applicants and made sure they are qualified and a match with the district, the board can feel good about the fact that these are all good candidates for the job,” added Vigil. “So, when it comes down to the interview process, it is really a personality and leadership-style fit, since you can be confident that everyone is a candidate of quality.”

So you’ve hired a superintendent — now what?
Once a contract has been signed, the real work of building a governance team begins. Vigil recommends creating a first-year transitional plan and using the resources that CSBA provides to set the tone and direction for your new governance team. “CSBA has great facilitators in Governance Consulting Services that can help a board determine goals and refresh a board on good governance training to help the transition go smoothly,” she said.

Trunkey also recommends returning to your district stakeholders. The Saugus Union SD board convened two special meetings when its new superintendent came on board — at the first, district and community stakeholders were solicited for their feedback on what was working for the district, what should be stopped and what should be focused on in the future. At the second meeting, the board took that feedback and used the information to set performance objectives for the superintendent. “Hiring a superintendent is the most important things a governing board does,” said Trunkey. “The process should be transparent, inclusive, thorough and dynamic — I believe we accomplished that with the help of McPherson’s Executive Search Service.”

Vigil’s last words of advice to districts embarking on a superintendent search? “The board should always keep in mind that this search is about the kids. I strongly believe quality education is dependent on quality leadership.”