School Beat: Finding San Francisco’s Next Superintendent

by Lisa Schiff on December 1, 2005

Who will be the next Superintendent of San Francisco’s public schools? That’s the question on everyone’s mind, but maybe it’s wrong one to ask at this point. Perhaps we should pause and ask a few other questions first: What do we want in a superintendent? For what will she or he actually be responsible? How will that person be evaluated and held accountable? And which voices will be represented in the “we” asking and answering these questions?

It is now a truism that there are many open superintendent positions, but fewer candidates applying to fill them. Results from the latest decennial superintendent survey conducted by the American Association of School Administrators 2000 (cited in the November 2000 issue of the American School Board Journal) indicate that it takes an average of 14 months to fill these positions, taking more than twice as long as in the previous survey. We can only assume that our search will take at least that amount of time, if not more.

Panicking because of this reality won’t help us. Instead, we can stop and consider what we are trying to achieve in filling this role and how to make the search process the most effective it can be. Helping with this was the appointment of Gwen Chan as the Interim Superintendent, effective when Dr. Ackerman’s term ends in June. By this act, our Board of Education (BOE) has wisely eased some of the pressure. Now we can take a deep breath and step into the superintendent search and selection process with deliberation and care.

The first decision is determining how to proceed. This coming Monday, December 5th at 6pm at 555 Franklin Street, the Budget and Business Services Committee of the BOE will be meeting to discuss among other things creating a “Community Advisory Committee for Superintendent Selection.” Forming such a committee is an excellent first step in the search process and the BOE should be congratulated on taking it and encouraged to follow through with it.

We in the community will need to take this opportunity seriously, jumping in to help shape the structure and expectations of the committee, participating at every possible point in the search and selection activities, and ensuring that the committee’s efforts and opinions are included when decisions are made.

Defining how different constituencies in the community will take part in the selection process is just the beginning. Several other important issues should be addressed during this period.
First, by all accounts, a professional search firm will have to be engaged, which means another search in itself. One goal that should be addressed by any such firm is to make sure that the pool of applicants reflects the diversity of our public school community. Our search and interview committees will need to be commensurately balanced according to gender, race, ethnicity and other dimensions that are felt to be important. Accomplishing this will help in recruiting more minority and women candidates into the pool.

Second, the BOE in particular will have to define in detail what the new superintendent will be responsible for and how she or he will be evaluated. The district’s mission and strategic goals should be reviewed and updated if necessary. A job description that reflects the mission and goals must be developed and agreed upon.

Draft performance objectives and a formal evaluation method could be sketched out and used as a mechanism for clarifying both what is desired in a candidate and what is reasonable to expect in the way of accomplishments. If this task is not taken up during the search and selection period, it will have to be completed very soon after a new superintendent comes on board. Agreement regarding what is to be done and how board members individually and collectively will conduct their assessment of the new superintendent’s work could go a long way towards ensuring successful collaboration between the board and the superintendent.

Third, we will have to define what qualities are most important in our new superintendent. Not all individuals will be strong in all areas. Different communities will value different characteristics. Several qualities have been mentioned as important over the last several months.

For instance, communication has been an issue in our district. Reinforcing the importance of this, good communication and marketing skills is consistently mentioned in the literature as one of the most important qualities of a superintendent. Identifying what productive communication would or could look like will be key.

Financial management skills are also critical. We must recognize that our District is a large enterprise, with complex financial and administrative aspects to it. Competency in these areas is essential. The interest in and ability to effectively explain and discuss our financial status and options would be a highly desirable quality in a new superintendent.

Political leadership is yet another skill area that has been brought up by many. The viability of our public schools is dependent upon factors outside of our district. Battles over what schools should be doing and what resources they should be allocated are being fought at the state and federal level. We should have some serious conversations about what we want and expect from a superintendent in this regard.

In a similar vein, Paul Houston of the American Association of School Administrators has made a compelling argument that viewing the superintendent as a CEO is inaccurate and flawed (http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/khou0102.htm).

The model is inaccurate because it does not recognize that while superintendents have similar responsibilities to CEOs, they are not single points of authority. In a school district setting, authority is becoming more and more distributed, especially if the interests of community groups are taken seriously.
The model is flawed because it doesn’t support the development of new approaches to learning that we so obviously need. A final obvious flaw is that while the ultimate goal of a CEO is to generate profits, often at the expense of the quality of the product or service, the minimal goal of a superintendent is to support create learning environments for all children in the district, even though they each have differing needs, abilities and interests.

Instead of this traditional, hierarchical, focused-on-the-individual model, Houston advances one that prioritizes and rewards communication, collaboration, and community building. A school superintendent is a leader in a central institution in any city or town. As such, the person in that role can work with others to not only support the schools, but help develop the community, or “grow the village” as he puts it, that in turn will help create dynamic, engaging schools that support all of our children.

The last task to be addressed is to not stop once we have found a new superintendent. Much of the literature describes how internal candidates are either overlooked or not developed into the role of superintendent. Turning that around and investing in the people in our district means that we increase the likelihood of finding excellent candidates who are already part of our community and who already are aware of the challenges we face and the goals we wish to achieve.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (http://www.ppssf.org).

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