The Role and Impact of Interim Superintendents

Research study suggests stakeholders and subjects see the interim district leader as more than a caretaker by MICHAEL J. MUGITS

Editor’s Note: This article appears only in the magazine’s web edition

Interim superintendents serve a critical role in school leadership. My doctoral dissertation, “The Interim Superintendent: Impact on School Districts During the Selection and Assimilation of the Successor Superintendent,” used multiple case studies supported by extensive interviews of varied constituent groups working in four school districts in upstate New York led by interims.

Michael MugitsMichael Mugits is superintendent in Green Island, N.Y.

My findings revealed the interim superintendents:
• improved their respective school systems;

• fulfilled a variety of expectations regarding meaning and purpose of the position;

• exercised multiple leadership roles;

• worked within three distinct organizational frames;

• actively separated themselves from caretaker status; and

• successfully prepared the districts for their next superintendent (three of the four successor superintendents were entry-level superintendents).

The significance of interim superintendents is underscored by Paul Houston, former executive director of AASA, who suggested that 15 percent of all public schools nationwide in 2000 were headed by interim superintendents. Applying that percentage to national statistics means interim superintendents lead as many as 7 million students and nearly 400,000 teachers. That speaks to the vital function performed by interims.

However, this key position may suffer in value from lack of research on the role and impact of the interim, which may in turn contribute to a common misperception by some that the primary purpose of the interim is keeping the seat warm for the successor superintendent.

A Common Challenge
Case study interviewees involved in the research included board of education members, successor superintendents, central administration, principals, teachers, support staff and parents, as well as two people who had served as interims in multiple school systems. School district documents and artifacts also were analyzed over the role and impact of the interim.

Before we examine the specifics supporting these six major findings, consider how a retired superintendent, who served as an interim with several different school districts, explained the challenge facing interims: “For the most part, interims arrive because the previous superintendent left (for a reason) other than to retire. So there’s usually some issue that the interim has to understand up front. That means there’s generally more of a need or emphasis for healing on the part of the interim.”

Interims are hired primarily because a superintendent has left the district and the departure did not allow a sufficient amount of time for the board of education to conduct a thorough search and selection process. In fact, while national surveys offer many different reasons for the departure of outgoing superintendents other than retirement -- acceptance of another position, illness/death, discharge, illegal activity, political discord -- one can conclude it’s generally not a positive separation and it usually stresses the system.

The general condition of each of the school districts had improved as a result of the intervention of the interim. This happened despite the difficulties inherited by the interim, according to the constituent representatives who were interviewed during the study. The perspectives of the interviewees were based on replies to the following questions: “What was the most memorable contribution of the interim superintendent?” “How would you describe the general condition of the school district at the time the interim began work in your district?” “How would you compare the organizational culture of the district before the arrival of the interim superintendent with the organizational culture at the time the interim superintendent departed?”

Michael Mugits, superintendentMichael Mugits, superintendent in Green Island, N.Y., speaks with a teacher in his district.

Their responses were evaluated on their own merit and within the context of the interview (through verbal or non-verbal cues) and subsequently recorded as positive, negative or neutral.

The meaning and purpose of the position involved six different roles. These emerged from the perceptions of interviewees regarding their expectations: (1) Transition – fill the leadership void between departing and succeeding superintendents; (2) Cleanup – resolve existing conflicts before the successor’s arrival; (3) Prepare – prepare the district for the effective entry of the successor superintendent beyond simply transitioning; (4) Buy Time – maintain the course of the district as it awaits the next superintendent; (5) Improve – leverage positive changes in the district; and (6) Experience – employ vast experience in meeting district needs.

The perception of the impact of the interim superintendent yielded seven different categories. In the comments of the participants, these categories are (1) Interactions – interpersonal communications, interactions or meetings; (2) Clarity – vision, direction or orientation; (3) Mediate – healing, conflict resolution, ameliorating issues; (4) Manage change – monitoring and facilitating the change process; (5) Decisions – exercising decision-making skills; (6) Enhance – leveraging improvement in the district; and (7) Knowledge – using the vast experience of the interim.

Three distinct organizational themes of the work of the interim emerged. These came about after juxtaposing the interview responses to the meaning and purpose of the role and the impact of the interim: (1) People – attending to the emotional and social interests and needs of staff members in an environment impacted by the unexpected departure of the outgoing leader; (2) Path – steps taken to produce a political atmosphere to facilitate the successful entry of the successor superintendent; and (3) Practice – stimulating instructional improvement through initiatives, management and validation.

The data indicated that the theme of Path was the predominant perception of the meaning and purpose of the interim superintendent. However, a closer look at the responses offers a subtle difference in perceptions. The highest percentage of tallies within the theme of Path were registered by school board members, while the highest percentage of tallies within the theme of Practice originated with central administration and principals, and the highest percentage of tallies within the theme of People were reported by teachers and staff members.

Interestingly, when asked later to identify the most significant contribution of the interim superintendent, the participants in the study most frequently expressed comments associated with the theme of People.

Interim superintendents did not view themselves as caretakers nor did school board members seek caretakers. The work of Cameron Martin, in his 2006 doctoral dissertation, “Understanding the Roles, Organizational Value and Practices Regarding Interim University Presidents,” identified four different leadership styles of interim leaders: (1) Caretaker – maintaining direction; (2) Strategic Leader – sustaining direction and mission; (3) Consultant – evaluating the district and offering advice; and (4) Preparer – enhancing the value of the district to increase its attractiveness to candidates.

These frames were applied in the analysis of the perceptions of interviewees regarding the role of interim. The interims pictured themselves as Preparers. Board members were unanimous in not wanting a Caretaker.

Consider how one board of education member described her interest: “We felt that an experienced short-term leader would be preferable to someone who would have to absorb the flack from tackling these tough issues while trying to develop the trust and relationships necessary to sustain them long term.”

One of the interim superintendents described his approach to actively engaging the challenge of their role in this manner: “You have a very different relationship with the board. You don’t hold hands. You don’t have to care and feed the board. You’re not as reliant on the board. I’ve found that I have more freedom as an interim. I can pull on my experience and see red flags and respond to them differently than a superintendent that is worried about their livelihood, loss of income, impact on their family.”

Three of the four successor superintendents in the study were entry-level superintendents. It would appear that interims hold positions that could otherwise be occupied by those certified for the position and anxious to begin their superintendent career. However, after investigating the school districts represented in the study and discovering the difficulties associated with the departure of the outgoing superintendents, the task would appear formidable for the novice superintendent.

Furthermore, an expanded analysis of six of the 37 Board of Cooperative Education Services in New York state revealed 46 instances of interims being hired among the 93 districts represented within those BOCES during a five-year period through 2007-2008. In six of these instances, an interim superintendent was replaced by another interim superintendent. Five of the districts still retained the services of an interim superintendent at the conclusion of the five- year period. One interim superintendent was eventually hired as a full-time replacement in the district. Entry-level superintendents were hired in 25 of the remaining vacancies whereas only nine of the districts hired superintendents with prior experience as a district leader.

Here’s how one participant in the study summarized the impact of the interim on the school district: “His (the interim superintendent’s) biggest contribution was extending the teachers’ contract another year to spare the next superintendent the trouble of being new and immediately jumping into negotiations -- all in terms of preparing the district for the new superintendent, making it a better, smoother transition so the person has a fair chance at success.”

Michael Mugits is superintendent of the Green Island School District in Green Island, N.Y. E-mail: mmugits@greenisland.org. This article is based on the author’s dissertation research for an Ed.D. educational leadership at the Sage Colleges in Albany, N.Y.