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Stepping up to school leadership

Districts can develop succession strategies before a superintendent moves on
In Monroe County School District in Mississippi, the superintendent is elected. But the board, above, has a working document in place, which means whoever is elected immediately becomes familiar with the district’s past work and future direction—and is ready to lead.
In Monroe County School District in Mississippi, the superintendent is elected. But the board, above, has a working document in place, which means whoever is elected immediately becomes familiar with the district’s past work and future direction—and is ready to lead.

In many school districts today, hiring practices for administrative leaders often consist of “replacement filling,” waiting for a position to open up before searching for candidates, according to a 2014 report on K12 education titled “Best Practices in Succession Planning,” created by Hanover Research, a market research and survey analysis company based in Washington, D.C.

Instead, the report states, successful succession planning, or “proactive filling,” requires “an appraisal of anticipated district needs, a clearly outlined plan with measureable objectives and a set of standardized evaluative criteria.”

Effective succession models evaluate their programs every year to maintain up-to-date longitudinal data. Tracking information allows leaders to more effectively anticipate future needs.

By measuring the effects of a succession program year-to-year, administrators know how to improve the program to serve the district’s needs. Succession planning requires goal-setting to be matched with follow-up to ensure the plan is appropriate and that preparation programs are effective, the report states. 

Proactive strategy

When Peter Mustich decided last year it was time to retire after 24 years as superintendent of the Rye Neck School District in New York, his announcement did not warrant much soul-searching from the six-member school board.

The board already had a five-year strategic plan in place and they agreed to look within for a successor.

So last July, when he publicly announced his retirement, Mustich and the board also announced that Rye Neck High School Principal Barbara Ferraro—who since 2000 has also served as an assistant superintendent—will take his place as of January 1, 2017.

“It was evident fairly early on that [Ferraro] was the right candidate,” Mustich says.

He and the board also agreed that Ferraro has knowledge of the district, and she has decades of experience as an assistant superintendent involved in budget, board and planning meetings.

Mustich and his board meet every year to review goals and priorities, and to ensure their actions move toward the district’s strategic plan. For example, Mustich says, the district and board agree the future of teaching includes more collaboration between students and teachers, and it means incorporating more technology in the classroom.

To meet the goal, the district presented its $35 million bond proposal to expand and renovate classrooms to include more technology and collaboration between teacher and student, a nod to what Mustich calls “21st century learning.”

Rye Neck schools, which has nearly 1,700 students and is located in Westchester County north of New York City, also has devoted—and loyal—administrators. Mustich was a teacher and principal in the district for 20 years prior to becoming superintendent and Ferraro has been with the district since 1990.

Such deliberate and continuous planning, along with a stable administration, made naming a new superintendent straightforward, Mustich says.

“We were super fortunate to have her step up and say, `I want to do that,’ since nobody’s really clamoring to be superintendent today,” he says. “There are superintendents who are right for a particular time and place, and that is what’s key.”

Succession plans keep stability

Succession planning is key for many districts for several reasons: The average superintendent contract lasts only five years, school board elections come as often as every two years, and many long-term superintendents are set to retire.

The idea of identifying upcoming leaders and creating pathways for them to move into such roles is common in the corporate world, but not in education, say some superintendents and experts.

But districts can practice successful succession planning—beginning with clear, thoughtful and collaborative strategic plans created with their school boards.

Unlike in the corporate world, where succession planning is often about grooming people, succession planning in education—though uncommon—is sometimes more focused on grooming the district to succeed, says William J. Attea, founding partner of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the executive search division of ECRA Group that consults districts on superintendent searches.

New board complicates plans

Attea, also a retired superintendent, attributes the general lack of superintendent succession planning in districts to the fluid and sometimes political nature of the governance structure—largely due to the members being elected every two to four years. It can be challenging for a district to consider its next leader when members of its governing body frequently turn over, adds Attea. Districts are governed by a board and when board members keep changing, districts can lack continuity of focus.

Succession planning instead should be strategic planning, says Attea, who was superintendent of Glenview Public School District 34 in Illinois from 1970 through 1994 and has since handled about 1,200 executive searches for districts.

The superintendent, staff and school board should determine the specific goals and programs for the district, along with the types of leaders they want to implement them, ahead of any major staff changes, he says.

“Districts that are focused and know where they want to go can do a much better job in succession planning and suffer from as little instability as possible,” Attea says. “Strategic planning is intended to keep momentum in the organization. If you can hold on to continued improvement, you are far better off than having to stop and start with some new direction.”

Only a district with a strong strategic plan for its schools and students truly knows what it needs in a leader, he says. The purpose of planning is to set expectations for the next leader to ensure goals for the district to move forward.

For example, when Attea worked in Glenview, the district held caucuses with community members to determine what traits they would want in a new leader, as well as what concerns and visions they have for the district’s success, he says.

Focus on future path

A strategic succession plan should include the personality or leadership traits deemed necessary to move forward, Attea says. “Focus on where you want to go, what you want to accomplish, how you want to get that done and who you want to do it,” he says.

In Monroe County School District in Mississippi, the superintendent role has also been an elected position. Brian Jernigan, a deputy superintendent who has been with the district for a decade and worked under two superintendents, says electing a superintendent and a board can cause uncertainty within the district. Candidates may not have the education experience or leadership skills the district needs to succeed, he adds.

“It’s a very dynamic situation, especially if you have districts that lose their superintendent but also two or three members of their five-member board,” Jernigan says. “That is very difficult to transition because you never know who may run [for the superintendent position] and what their background is.”

To increase stability within a district—where one term for a superintendent is four years, and school board members serve at least one six-year term—the Monroe County district and board members created a five-year plan that includes yearly and long-term goals as well as budget assessments.

Having a working document in place means whoever is elected to the superintendent role immediately becomes familiar with the district’s past work and future direction, Jernigan says.

Each year, the superintendent and board review the plan, and the superintendent may propose changes that the board votes on, Superintendent Scott Cantrell says.

Last year, Cantrell adds, the board reviewed the facilities budget, which includes upgrades to many buildings that were constructed in the 1930s through 1970s. The board voted to include in the budget some new grants the district received to build tornado shelters on each property, Cantrell says.

The district’s strategic plan is a “living, breathing document,” says Cantrell, adding that it draws on goals for the district and allows for changes to be made.

One major change for Monroe County schools is that once Cantrell’s term is up in 2019, the county will no longer vote for its superintendent. Instead, the position will be appointed by the school board, similarly to most districts in the country, Jernigan says.

Jernigan already performs many leadership duties alongside Cantrell, including in PD, budget and strategic planning. Jernigan says he appreciates the additional leadership experience in a district office of just six people. Does his experience mean he could run to succeed Cantrell? It certainly is an advantage, he says. “We all [district staff] wear multiple hats,” Jernigan says. “I get to see a broad spectrum of things.”

Leadership pipeline leads way

Larger districts, too, pay attention to strategic plans but may have more of a formal leadership pipeline. One focus of the diverse, urban Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools in North Carolina is on “human capital” and leadership development, Superintendent Ann Clark says.

Succession planning is also about ensuring the district is developing leaders and providing opportunities for advancement, she adds. This is why the Charlotte-Mecklenberg district is including formal succession planning—particularly for positions in which one person holds a particular job title—in its 2018 strategic plan, Clark says.

Included in the plan is adding a dedicated professional staff focused on recruitment for the district, executive and individual leadership development programs and training, and formal midyear and end-of-year evaluations of staff, along with developing personal goals for district employees, Clark adds.

“It’s being really intentional about the people you place in the top tier of the district, and creating opportunities for these folks to be ready,” she says.

For example, for each leadership position in the district, Clark has lists of employees who have been evaluated as “ready now” to step into the role, “ready in two years” or “emergency substitute,” or someone who could step in immediately for extra leadership experience.

During annual evaluations, Clark and other district leaders ask their reports about their thoughts on the next steps in their leadership journeys.

“We’re having those conversations so managers will know if, say, a school principal might be ready to move to a middle school or a new school as a different experience,” Clark says.

Such succession planning covers the district if any position becomes available, “When you make that part of an annual conversation, your superintendents really know where people want to go and where they want to be,” she says.

The district has extended its leadership training to teachers as part of the Principal Pipeline Initiative, a partnership with a national education non-profit to create a formal process to identify and groom potential principals and school leaders.

Working together

If the administration and the school board work in tandem on the district’s vision and goals, the district will be ready to search for new leadership, as well as for the transition, says Ferraro of Rye Neck.

“It’s nice to talk about vision, but there’s a reality to a vision. You can have both but you have to be cognizant of that,” Ferraro says. “The district is in a really good place now, and my goal when the time comes is to leave it in a good place for the next person coming in.”

According to the Hanover Research report, succession planning is “a fluid and continual process, and requires regular assessment and adjustment.”

By developing a consistent series of metrics, the Hanover report states, districts can ensure effective administrators remain on the job and continue to improve both their individual and district performance.

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Melanie Lasoff Levs is a freelance writer in Atlanta.