Guest Column

Superintendents’ Lives as Independent Contractors


You are really not an employee of this district,” I was told as I entered my first public school superintendency almost 30 years ago.

“You are hired by the board and are contracted to it, independently from the other staff.”

This year, midway through my 42nd year in education, as I look toward retirement in the near future, I’ve been reflecting on my time in the superintendency. I recalled that earlier comment by a school board member about being independently contracted and now find a lot of truth in what was said.

In considering the reasons some school systems enjoy more success than others, I found two notable factors: (1) principals working with a supportive superintendent on the management team toward a well-defined purpose; and (2) the longevity of the principals and the superintendent. Time and teamwork lead to positive outcomes.

Priority Targets
I left teaching to become a principal and, after a few years, my first superintendency, where I had several opportunities to work with excellent mentors. Along the way I spent 30 years as a superintendent in only three districts, large and small — four years in my first, eight in my second, and now 18 years in my current post.

As I grew professionally, my peers and mentors impressed upon me the importance of taking care of family and self and making a commitment to my school district. Those targets kept me in each district long enough to effect a change, which I hope some might say was positive. I felt personally secure I had done my part by setting a forward direction for the district, developing true administrative teams, solving problems closest to their source and doing what I felt was best for children.

Whenever I discuss my career with young professionals eager to become superintendents, I always offer my interpretation of the superintendency. The rewards can be many, I counsel them, but only if you understand certain realities of the job.

As superintendents of schools, we are really independent contractors. While I believe we have much to offer our districts in the form of leadership and management skills, the bottom line is that others also must believe that is true and want to hire us, as a contracted entity, separate from all other education professionals in the school system. We work under an individual contractual agreement for a board of five to seven individuals that may decide, at any given time, whether we have met its expectations.

Another reality of the superintendency is that boards of education hire us to “walk on water,” making our tenure only as lengthy as our continuing ability to venture far from shore without sinking. We are hired to follow a job description that might as well include “creating miracles.”

Seldom are our daily efforts recognized until we have departed, as most of our work is aimed at promoting the work of others. All the while we must understand that our careers are balanced on the thin thread of public perception. Superintendents who are publicly appreciated while they are still alive are fortunate. Sadly, they are few in number.

Expanding Choices
Knowing the difficulties they presently face from numerous directions and balancing that harsh realization with the rewards of seeing a district change into a viable and growing education force during their tenure, most superintendents would do it all over again. That is indicative of the dedication and desire for excellence of our public school superintendents.

When working with dedicated board members, administrators and staff, our position remains interesting and desirable. As independent contractors, we know our families play a major part in our career moves and without that familial support, the superintendency becomes merely a job.

Superintendents ultimately choose which district they want to work in, as well as the contractual conditions under which they work. The opportunities have increased dramatically, especially at this time of diminishing interest by educators in becoming superintendents.

The superintendency is rarely thought of anymore as a place to spend a career, as most now enter the position late in their professional life. Disappearing is the superintendent who will commit most of his or her education life in the top position. The reasons are many and becoming more obvious as the waters they are asked to walk on get more unstable.

As I view those entering the position for the first time, I am, however, encouraged by their desire to affect positive change. Those aspiring to the superintend-ency need to do so with their eyes wide open and understand that, as independent contractors, they are in control of their future more than at any time in history.

Thomas Engler is superintendent of the Yorkville Community Unit School District 115 in Yorkville, Ill. E-mail: