Board-Savvy Superintedent

Surviving Your First Contract

The secret to passing your tax or bond measure may be found in the data of earlier votes by Judith A. Ferguson

No graduate program can adequately prepare a novice superintendent for the myriad situations she or he likely will face during the first few years. In addition to learning the job, today’s superintendent faces challenges unlike those of prior generations. Perhaps the most difficult one is gaining an understanding of how to work effectively with the board of education.

To survive the first contract, the 21st century superintendent must satisfy a new breed of board member, one influenced by the Vietnam War and Watergate. This new board member respects results rather than positions of authority and demands proof rather than expert advice.

The tips that follow hopefully will help with board relations so that the novice superintendent survives beyond the duration of the first contract.

  • The board that hired you will change. Accept it and act accordingly.
    Don’t join the legion of superintendents who complain that “The board I have today is not the one that hired me.” For various reasons, board turnover is inevitable. It will most likely occur during your first term in office.


    If you focus your attention on school district needs, which remain constant, you can better weather the storm of change on the board. Additionally, you need to welcome new board members and help them assimilate into the governing body effectively. Don’t treat new members any differently than you do those who hired you.

  • Don’t expect a honeymoon. Prepare for your first quarrel.
    We often hear about the new superintendent who is already in trouble. In the good ol’ days, school boards would treat their new superintendent with great deference during the first year or so. Now they challenge you from the start. An important test will be how you handle your first disagreement with the board.

    It is your job to advise the board to the best of your ability. Sometimes the board will not listen. Do not consider this a failure on your part, and do not be a bad sport. Unless the decision places you in an ethical dilemma, then you must support it.

    You will be tempted to tell others that you disagree with the board’s position to make friends or to salve your ego. Avoid doing this. If you failed to convince the board to accept your recommendation, figure out why and do things differently in the future.

  • You may think the board wants you to drive change as if you are touring the autobahn on a clear day. Be prepared to adjust your speed when conditions change.
    Be aware that the people who hired you because you are a change agent may be the first ones to complain when tension mounts. In order to maintain the board’s support, you may need to slow down from time to time. Adhere to the caveat implicit with any speed limit--“when conditions permit.” Remember, progress sometimes occurs as two steps forward and one step back.

  • You will be judged more by the way you handle a crisis than by the way you plan for the future. Be ready for the crisis, but don’t stop the planning.
    If someone told you that crisis management is the most important job a superintendent does, then you might not have chosen this profession. The good news is that it is not, at least not until the crisis happens!

    Think about Rudy Guiliani. As mayor of New York, he accomplished great works. He cleaned up 42nd Street. He civilized New York traffic. He dramatically reduced crime. But what will he be remembered for? September 11. His handling of this world-shattering crisis provided us all with a valuable lesson. Your leadership, too, must pass both the short- and the long-term tests.

  • It is lonely at the top. Maintain a healthy balance in your life.
    While you will have close professional relationships in the workplace, you cannot compromise your position by making friends of board or staff members. All board members must be treated equally, and each staff member must feel no more or less favored than another.

    The loneliness of the job requires that you reach out to family and friends for the companionship you need and deserve. Make time in your busy life to nurture your physical and spiritual needs as well as your intellectual ones.

    Personal and professional lives are not mutually exclusive. You can find time on the job for recreation while also earning dividends. Slip out to an athletic game in the afternoon and relax during the evening at school concerts and plays. Label parts of your job as play and they will become so.

The tenure for superintendents continues to shorten, now under three years in urban districts. Unless this phenomenon changes in the near future, school districts and their children will both be left behind. Effective, long-lasting change requires stable leadership.

Judith Ferguson, a former superintendent and past president of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, runs Centennium Consultants, 32 Ludlow Road, Yardley, PA 19067. E-mail: She also is a search consultant with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates.


Judith Ferguson suggests these related readings:

Partners in Progress: Strengthening the Superintendent-Board Relationship edited by Matthew King, Jossey-Bass, 1999.

The Board-Savvy Superintendent by Doug Eadie and Paul D. Houston, Scarecrow Press, 2002.

“Superintendent Rookies” by Donna Harrington Lueker, The School Administrator, October 2002.