Succession: Insiders Vs. Outsiders

Candidates for the superintendency find benefits and downsides to either status by Jay Mathews

Daniel D. Curry has been an inside candidate for a superintendency, looking to be promoted within his school district. He has been an outside candidate too. He was hired both times, in very different circumstances, and cannot decide if one has any advantage over the other in the competition for top school system leadership positions.


“I just looked over the list of 55 superintendents in West Virginia,” says Curry, the superintendent in Wood County, W.Va. “About 22 of them have been hired in the past two years—11 from the inside and 11 from the outside.”

Nationally, most school boards hire superintendents who have been working in other districts, but there appear to be conflicting trends in recent years. The largest sampling of superintendents by AASA, most of them overseeing relatively small districts, shows a slight increase in the percentage of outsider hires, from 64 percent in 1992 to 68.3 percent in 2000. But in districts with at least 25,000 students, the outsider portion of the total number of hires has declined slightly, from 64 percent in 1992 to 57.9 percent in 2000.

Seeking Miracles

What might be causing these trends is a mystery. As with many facets of a superintendents’ professional life, there is little research assessing how, when and why school boards hire and fire their district leaders. But many school board members, superintendents and search executives think they see school boards changing old habits because of their desire for better student test scores, as well as growing unhappiness with the work of many of the superintendents they hire.

There is no question that superintendents’ jobs are more stressful than they have ever been. School boards also are under increasing pressure to find someone who will make sure the district schools look good under new statewide accountability plans that rely heavily on standardized testing. That means, the experts say, that every board is looking for a miracle worker. That is an impossible job description, of course, but it is often easier for a board to convince themselves that such great talent might be found in a stranger than an assistant superintendent whom they already know well.

“The internal candidates have knowledge of the district as a strength,” says Diane Neal, member of the Freeport, Ill., school board where the district has 4,650 students. “However, that can also be a weakness. There can be groups within the district who have already formed an opinion pro or con on the person based on their previous position, which can make it difficult for the person to make the transition to superintendent.”

In the two superintendent searches Neal has been a part of, she says, her board was looking for “an external candidate with previous experience as a superintendent, although we would not have rejected an internal candidate if he/she had been clearly the most qualified. The job of superintendent is difficult enough, and our district’s size and complexity is sufficiently large, that we felt we wanted someone with previous experience and with a track record. We also felt that it gave us a chance to see what types of relationships the candidate built in other districts and what kinds of programs they had promoted.”

Wanting to decide on the basis of more than just the usual vague hopes that surround an attractive outside candidate, Neal says, board members went so far as to visit the districts of the two finalists. In one case, their presence had an unexpected effect: Local supporters of the superintendent redoubled their effort to keep her, leading her to decide to stay. In the other case, the local supporters did not persuade the superintendent candidate to change his mind, but spoke of him in such warm terms that Neal’s board hired him.

Neal says she can see many reasons while most boards still prefer outsiders. “Possibly,” she says, “external candidates are more willing to listen to the priorities the board wants to set, whereas internal candidates may be either more inclined to continue running things as they have always been done or less able to motivate other staff to consider new approaches.”

An Outside Edge

The very nature of an outside candidate makes them better equipped to impress a search committee because they are going to have much more experience than inside candidates in dealing with search committees. Charles Ecker, superintendent of the Carroll County, Md., schools, says outsiders are also more likely to be on the list of potential candidates maintained by the search firms that board hires.

“Some of these superin-tendents in my opinion are ‘profes-sional’ superin-tendents, and when they get a job in a school district, they are continually looking for another superintendency,” Ecker says. “And the search firm puts their name into almost every job that opens up.”

William McDonald, who has been superintendent in Long Island’s Floral Park school district for 24 years, says there is a natural pecking order to superintendencies that keeps the flow of talent in one direction—toward more prestige and more money. “People want to move up, not down,” he says. “Superintendents moving down are running from the posse.”

Also, some potential inside candidates are so happy with their lives and their jobs that the idea of taking on a superintendent’s headaches makes them shudder and look for a tactful way to refuse, or at least construct an escape hatch.

Tyra L. Manning, superintendent in River Forest, Ill., District 90, says she knows a principal in his mid-40s who was asked to apply for the superintendency in his district. “He didn’t want it,” she says. “He finally agreed to take it as long as he could go back to his old job if he didn’t like it.”

Why then do the bigger districts seem to be hiring more insiders? The data in the AASA’s 2000 Study of the American School Superintendency is not conclusive. Only 95 superintendents of larger urban and suburban districts were surveyed, and the change from earlier years was not very great. In 1982, 38 percent of large district superintendents said they had been promoted from within. In 1992 the portion was 36 percent, and in 2000 it rose to 42.1 percent.

But veterans of superintendent searches say there is something in the dynamics of the new emphasis on student test scores that may be pushing the external vs. internal debate in new directions. Several superintendents and headhunters say they think there is a renewed interest in insiders for no other reason than that such a high percentage of outsiders fail to measure up to the high expectations of their first days on the job. School boards find themselves feeling like lonely, jaded singles who have had too many failed romances. Old, familiar faces at their district headquarters, assistant superintendents they have known for years, begin to look more attractive.

“Inside candidates are currently getting more attention because they are a known talent, and the pool of candidates sometimes lacks depth,” says Karl Hertz, a former AASA president who now works as a superintendent search consultant in Thiensville, Wis. “The internal candidate can be expected to be quickly up to speed. He or she knows the issues. Also, they have the chance to demonstrate their abilities.”

Recently, Hertz says, he worked with two school districts that had strong inside candidates for their superintendencies. One got the job and the other soon took a superintendency in another district near enough to have had a good sense of his talents.

Unreal Expectations

Many school boards, faced with a vacancy, announce that they are launching a national search. They tell parents, business leaders and the local newspaper that they expect to receive applications from many strong candidates. But the reality today is often much less encouraging.

R. Gerald Longo, the superintendent in Quaker Valley, Pa., says a nearby district “did a national search almost a year in advance” and was not impressed by the results. “They only had about 30 candidates,” Longo says. “They narrowed the field to three. Two of the three were quite weak. This left them with a single candidate who used their offer to leverage a new agreement with his present superintendency. That left them with none.”

What did they do? They went back to an internal candidate—an assistant superintendent who had been running the district on an acting basis but had been ruled out as a frontrunner very early in the search. “He was a good choice, by the way,” Longo says.

Homer H. Kearns, a former AASA president who had been involved in at least a dozen superintendent searches, says that for all the grand public statements that school boards make about their national searches, sometimes “they privately confess that they do not trust the glowing recommendations that often accompany outside candidates. Sometimes they privately confess that they think headhunters just shuffle bad news around the country.”

Amy F. Sichel, the new superintendent in the Abington, Pa., district, says both she and her predecessor were successful internal candidates. “If you have a homegrown option who knows the politics and climate, I believe the success rate has to be better,” she says. “I feel that in my case I have moved right in with a seamless transition since last February.”

Excellent administrators often will reject chances to compete for superintendencies in other districts because they are happy in their work and often will move only when their children are grown or personal circumstances change. Rebecca Perry, recently hired as superintendent in Alexandria, Va., has a long career in Fauquier County, Va. She says she only applied for her first superintendent’s job in Mecklenburg County, Va., because she had just gone through a divorce and felt the need for a change of scene.

One reason bigger districts may find it easier to develop and hire good internal candidates is that they have more room for them to grow—more principalships and more administrative jobs at central-office headquarters. And Neal, the school board member in Freeport, Ill., says there is also the fact that “it is getting hard to find external candidates.” She says few people “can manage all the different job requirements equally well. Add to that the fact that it can be relatively easy as the new person in town to step on known land mines, and outside candidates can run into problems within a year or two.”

She notes the case of a talented principal she knew who was hired as superintendent of a 5,000-student district and appeared to be doing so well that voters passed a $5 million building reconstruction referendum. Then, nine months into the job, he was handed his first job evaluation, right after a board meeting, It said he was being fired for a series of previously unmentioned offenses, including buying office furniture without board approval.

“I think that’s the kind of situation that makes people wonder why they should bother becoming a superintendent,” Neal says.

Rejected Feelings

The mere mention of an internal candidate can have unsettling effects on some external candidates, says Kearns, the consultant and former AASA president.

“Generally, practicing superintendents are hard to recruit anyway because they believe that when the board and public find out that they are looking, it’s the beginning of the end for them in that district,” he says. “So trying to recruit in the face of an insider in the mix is even tougher. That’s one reason why we try to convince boards that if they are not willing to hire the insiders, they should remove them from the list as soon as possible. Leaving them on the finalist list for show when they know they will not hire them is not a good idea for anyone.”

Kearns, whose last superintendency was in Salem, Ore., says he knows how rejected candidates feel because he has been one. He once lost a job to an insider candidate and recalls feeling angry and frustrated. These days he hears the same complaints from outsiders when an insider steals the show. He offered this sampling of reactions from rejected outsiders: “I jeopardized my present position by becoming a known candidate when the board was just using us to measure up its first choice.” Or: “It was a done deal from the beginning, and either the board lied to the consultant or the consultant wasn’t truthful with us.”

Each hiring decision is different, based on unique circumstances, but many superintendents and headhunters say they believe the method used to hire the departing superintendent, and the success of his or her tenure, will subtly influence the psychology of the board as it looks for a replacement.

Paul Hagerty, superintendent in Seminole County, Fla., says if a superintendent who was internally promoted leaves after a less than stellar performance, “I believe the tendency is to go outside for a ‘breathe of fresh air.’” But if it is an external candidate who is hired and doesn’t work out, “I believe there is a tendency to hunker down and promote from within to create a period of stability.”

Herbert W. Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, says school boards often are compensating—sometimes overcompensating—for what they think was wrong with their last hiring decision. “There seems to be a pendulum effect in the selection process,” he says.

Trust has a lot to do with it. Some school boards get to the point where they have lost faith in their staff. Ecker, the Carroll County superintendent, says this can extend deep into the ranks. Some of his board members want him to go outside for replacements of several key staff people, rather than promoting from within. “I believe that is because they don’t trust current staff,” he says. “Of course the current superintendent is the exception, at least for another day or two.”

Trust is also important for outsiders coming to run a district full of strangers. “An outside person is often the right catalyst for productive change,” says David Magill, superintendent of the Lower Merion, Pa., school district. “It just requires a commitment and time for trust.” But if the newcomer does not devote many hours to winning over his new staff, they “will sense that a carpetbagger has arrived with no investment other than with him or herself,” Magill says.

Salary Considerations

Once the decision has been made to hire a person, the fact they are an outsider or an insider can have a significant influence on how they are treated in the crucial first few weeks of their tenure.

Evan Pitkoff, superintendent of Regional School District 10 in Burlington, Conn., says he sees a domino effect on salaries when a superintendency vacancy appears. It helps outsiders and insiders in different ways. “It usually takes the departure of a good superintendent for a board to realize that the compensation for the position needed to be increased,” Pitkoff says. Outsiders in particular are less likely to respond to the board’s advertisement for a replacement unless the salary looks good.

But some members of the board will question the need to spend much money, which becomes, Pitkoff says, “an opportunity for an internal candidate to ascend to the superintendency, given the board will feel it does not have to increase substantially the salary for their hometown candidate.”

Kearns says the board’s desire to save money with an internal hire—an “innie” in Kearns’ parlance—often sparks much complex maneuvering. “There is a great internal conflict regarding salary, fringes, perks, roles and relationships between the board and the innies that really does not exist with the outies,” he says.

The internal candidate’s salary is well-known to the board and the community and is often far below the going rate for superintendents. So when it comes time to decide the compensation for a new superintendent promoted from within, “the board does not want the heat of reading in the newspaper that they gave the appointed one a 23 percent increase or some such thing,” Kearns says. “So they are very likely to suggest a small increase, 8 to 10 percent and keep the fringes the same. Whereas, a new person coming in would likely negotiate the going rate and the going package contents and in many cases make $30,000 to $50,000 more than the innie plus a good, diversified benefit package.”

Kearns says boards ask for help from consultants like him in negotiating outsider’s compensation packages, but do it themselves when dealing with internal candidates and their more modest demands. “Innies actually do not squawk much about this since they are likely long-time district employees who have constituencies of their own,” he says. “This arrangement, although not fair, is comfortable.”

Foresight by the outgoing superintendent can ease the process considerably, particularly if he sees a likely successor in his staff and works at bringing the board around to his view. “I hope that my assistant succeeds me,” says Longo of the Quaker Valley district. “I am doing all that I can to mentor him to do so. He has a great feel for our core values and our processes. He is well-respected by our community. He’ll be successful if he gets the opportunity.”

And the fact that the assistant superintendent is likely to be there during the search, running the district while the process drags on, increases his chances of getting the job permanently. Kearns says he was an internal candidate for his last superintendent’s job in Salem, but his board wasn’t sure and appointed him interim superintendent instead. They said they were going to conduct the usual national search. But “they increasingly became comfortable with me as the chief and when it came time to make a decision about a search, they decided to save the money.”

That transition period “gives boards the option of test-driving a superintendent before having to make a serious commitment,” Kearns says. “It’s the easy way out of a search.” And if the board goes ahead and spends $30,000 on a national search anyway, they often tell themselves the insider will be stronger if he or she competes, he says.

A Known Quantity

All hiring decisions, whether based on a need for new blood or a desire for a familiar face, can go wrong. But they are more likely to turn out well if the person hired has the sense to listen to the board and do his or her job.

Curry, the superintendent who oversees 14,000 students in Wood County, W.Va., won his first superintendency as an inside candidate on what other aspirants might have interpreted as a discouraging 3-2 vote by the school board. He had had lots of experience, teaching 4th and 6th grades and serving as both an elementary and middle school principal. He had even driven a school bus. But he was also very young, only 34. And some board members thought they knew him too well.

“One of those who voted against me felt that I had been used as ‘the bad guy’ for previous superintendents, which may have caused some hard feelings in certain areas of the district,” Curry says. The board member “felt that, even though I was following orders and doing a job that was needed, the damage may be difficult to overcome.”

To Curry’s mind, it illustrated the old adage: “For an inside candidate the good news is, the board already knows you. The bad news is, the board already knows you.” When his contract came up for renewal, however, Curry had compiled a good record and both dissenters voted to keep him.

He was hired for his next two superintendent jobs as an outsider. In each case the board had developed a specific distaste for the inside alternatives. “The first district had gone through an embarrassing series of public stories initiated by the last guy’s ex-girlfriend,” Curry says. “The in-house candidates were perhaps just too familiar to the board. Plus, they both had sued the board for various reasons in past years.”

When Curry applied for his present job in Wood County seven years ago, the outgoing superintendent had had a good record during 17 years of service. “But board-superintendent relations had been strained due to differing views on the role of the board,” Curry says. “Any in-house candidates had been hired by my predecessor which, right or wrong, tainted them. The board was looking for an outside candidate from the get-go. They wanted some fresh ideas.”

Looking back on his experiences and what has happened to colleagues, Curry says he has concluded that “the outside candidate is more likely to be a risk taker.” He has talked to peers who prefer to stay where they are, saving their families from a disruptive move. If the superintendency in their home district does eventually come to them, “their attitude is, ‘If this doesn’t work out, they’ll give me my old job back.’”

A Secure Future

But maintaining that safety net means making a lot of compromises. “An outside candidate doesn’t have an old job to fall back on, nor does he or she expect one,” Curry says.

At this point in the history of American education, there are still more dissatisfied boards than completely satisfied ones, and more outsiders than insiders being hired. Which means that the outsiders, in a way, feel like they too have job security.

“Having won a job from the outside can give you the confidence you need to take chances,” Curry says. And if your school board decides they don’t like what you have done, he says, “there are plenty of other districts in need of a leader.”

Jay Mathews is an education reporter for The Washington Post. E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com