Feature

The Interim Superintendency

Second careers for some, temporary school system leaders fill increasingly crucial roles during transitionary time by KRISTA RAMSEY


For many years, the succession of leadership in American schools was comfortably predictable. Typically, one school superintendent followed another in nearly inevitable fashion, generally destined for a tenure that spanned many years and often decades.

Now, as with many other facets of education, that pattern is regularly altered. One full-time, permanent superintendent may be followed by another, but in a significant number of school districts, he or she is being followed by an interim superintendent.

The reasons are many. In some cases, the job has grown too large and too stressful for administrators to inhabit for long. In other situations, the pool of willing replacements has grown too small for quick or automatic transitions. The result is the widespread use of interim superintendencies--a development worthy of note because it reflects wide changes in the field of educational administration.


Special Expertise
School districts that have employed interim superintendents say the position offers special, albeit hidden, advantages. It can add new options and flexibility to the hierarchy of educational leadership--allowing, for example, a school board to bring in a specialist in contract negotiations or bond-issue passage at a crucial moment.

It also can provide needed breathing space in the stressful and increasingly important superintendent selection process. And it clearly offers an avenue for productive use of the growing pool of willing, experienced and still-youthful retired superintendents.

But the interim superintendency also signals a dropped link in the chain of administrative continuity. "Usually it’s not in the board’s favor to have an interim," says I. Phillip Young, professor of educational administration at Ohio State University, who has studied the phenomenon. "It would usually be better for everyone if they could hire a regular superintendent. The interim will have a lot less authority, both from the bottom up and the top down."

The right interim superintendent at just the right juncture can bring respite to a troubled district, focus to a chaotic one and unity to a divided one. Garth Errington left retirement after 42 years as a professional educator to become interim superintendent of Norwood City Schools outside Cincinnati, Ohio, after conflict had led to the resignation of the superintendent, assistant superintendent and a board member and left the school system in turmoil. In 21 months, Errington calmed the waters, replaced 14 of 20 administrators, opened an alternative school for potential dropouts and won back public confidence.

Unfortunately, not every temporary superintendency works as smoothly. An interim superintendent who is too bold or too timid for his particular position can worsen a delicate situation considerably. Further, the position itself can prove a complication. It can pit inside candidates against outside candidates in the race for the permanent position, leaving lasting scars and creating a battle that is difficult for anyone to win.

And while a brief, well-timed interim superintendency can bring healing and focus, a series of interim appointments is almost sure to harm staff morale and public confidence in the district, experts say. "If the district leadership changes suddenly two or three times, the mantra is ‘This too shall pass,’" says Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of education at Harvard University and author of Leading to Change: The Challenge of the New Superintendency. "Teachers and principals won’t submit to the new person’s directives."

A Growing Presence
Despite their significance to the field, interim superintendencies have drawn surprisingly little scholarly attention. When Leslie T. Fenwick started researching the topic as a doctoral student at Ohio State University in the early 1990s, she found few studies to draw upon.

After tracking their number through state departments of education, Fenwick found that interim superintendencies were growing both in length of tenure and in number. From 1982 to 1992, the average annual number of appointments rose from 10 to 36. In the same period, tenure increased from 4.7 months to 5.8 months. In casual observations of the field since then, she believes both numbers have continued to increase.

The use of interims varies by place and type of district. States such as California that have seen a marked increase in contract buyouts by school boards have more superintendent vacancies and a larger pool of experienced interim candidates with which to fill them. Urban districts, where student needs and public demands for accountability have escalated, are far more likely to have temporary leaders than are suburban or rural districts. As of January, at least eight of the nation’s big-city school districts were being overseen by interim leaders, according to the Council of the Great City Schools. "Interim superintendencies are everyday, run of the mill for us," says Michael Casserly, executive director.

Fenwick, who is a visiting fellow with the Principals’ Center at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, says various factors have contributed to the need for temporary administrations at the district level. The first is shorter tenure in the superintendency, which in urban districts averages just 2.75 years, according to the Council of the Great City Schools. "The political dynamics of school districts and the politics of the superintendency, along with social and demographic changes in the community, have shortened the length of service," Fenwick says.

This trend is complicated by other factors, which include a shrinking pool of interested replacements. "There’s lessening job appeal," she adds. "Superintendents have high salaries, but assistant superintendents are often making $80,000 plus. Veteran teachers and principals are making good salaries, without being on the same hot seat. People start looking at the stress-to-income ratio. State studies of superintendent succession indicate that professionals who would be in the superintendent pipeline aren’t interested in these high-ranking positions."

Superintendents today are also a far more mobile group than their predecessors, career-bound rather than place-bound and willing to move--and move quickly--to advance their careers. Further, there is more public pressure for faster change in education. Dissatisfaction with a school district’s performance often manifests itself in dissatisfaction with a superintendent, making school boards far more willing to release him or her prematurely and need an interim leader to step in.

In religious leadership and in some industries, a space between leaders is often built into the governance system, particularly if the last leader had a long and popular tenure. The governing board will hire an interim leader to allow loyalties to fade and prevent comparisons between the two from being drawn. In education, however, an interim leader is far more likely to arrive in troubled times than in peaceful ones.

"Sometimes it’s good to have an interim superintendent come in after a well-liked superintendent, but usually if the board had a good relationship with the superintendent, he’ll get to groom his own successor," says Ron Brown, a field services representative with the Association of California School Administrators and a former assistant superintendent in Huntington Beach, Calif. "I don’t see too many interim superintendents go in where everything is rosy."

Typically, the need for an interim superintendency arises from a controversy, set in motion by a sudden departure of the superintendent, a lack of time for appointing a successor and sometimes a board split on whom to hire.

"If the interim superintendency is growing--and I’m not sure that it is--it has to do with the shortage of candidates for the superintendency, which everybody is talking about," says Harvard’s Moore Johnson. "The search for a superintendent is extensive and often a very political process with public debate and much discussion. If the superintendent suddenly gets a new job and the board doesn’t want to begin a search in July, it will name an acting interim. It’s rarely planned. I don’t think people are bringing in interims to clean house."

Tense Situations
But just what duties they’ll face is a critical question for entering interim superintendents.

At best, his or her arrival has been triggered by change and transition, which often makes staff and communities edgy. At worst, the interim superintendent is arriving in the midst of strife and dissension, sometimes after the superintendent has been removed and sometimes, observers say bluntly, after the predecessor bailed out just before crises hit.

"The best interims come in knowing the issues they’ll face and comfortable they can address them," says Tom Giugni, who served as a temporary superintendent in Howell Mountain School District in Napa Valley, Calif., after retiring as executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. "They say to the board, ‘I don’t want to sit here. I want to do some things.’"

That request can be welcome news for a school board faced with difficult issues and no popular solutions. "As superintendent, every time you make a change, you make some enemies," Giugni says. "If the interim can do this, he extends the honeymoon period for the incoming superintendent. There are quite a number of superintendents who do this regularly and love it. They’re really quite independent. They can make the hard changes and move on. They may not want to go in and change the world, but to take the district to the next level--finish a construction project, settle a contract."

Brown, who works in field services for the California administrators’ association, says a squadron of "top gun" interim superintendents is emerging. "There are four or five around the state now who have done it time and time again," he says. "They know what the interim superintendency is, they know what it takes and they can make the tough calls."

The Princeton, N.J., schools were faced with community dissension and a need for good business planning in early 1999 after its superintendent was let go and the school board could not agree on a successor. To give itself time for an intensive search, the board hired the former leader of the Monroe Township, N.J., schools, Richard Marasco, as interim superintendent.

Within months, Marasco helped settle contracts with teachers, support staff and administrators that had been open for two years. In a district where educational practices draw a good deal more attention than business practices, he undertook an inventory of personnel and a hard look at the budget.

School board member Therese Flaherty is convinced Marasco’s hiring was a key to putting the district on sound footing and beginning to heal hard feelings in the community. "If you have internal problems, an interim from outside can deal with them better. An interim can deal with your shortcomings in a more dispassionate manner. They can look at systems--who do we have working for us, what do they do and how much do we pay for them? It’s easier for a new superintendent to come in with some of the bigger issues dealt with."

A Defined Role
The interim as activist is a sign how much the position has changed in some school districts. Traditionally, the interim’s charge was to simply maintain the status quo until the full-time superintendent took over. "They were place holders," says Fenwick, whose doctoral study examined different types of interim leaders (see related article). "Typically, the board hired an insider, took the director of personnel or the assistant superintendent and said, ‘We’ll just have him hold the reins.’"

That may have worked in the past when pressures were fewer, community input less rancorous and the job itself less controversial. Today interims often enter at the most chaotic times, as a teacher strike looms, a ballot issue must be decided upon, a construction project begun.

"Today even if that person wants to just hold the reins, he or she often can’t," Fenwick says.

"Interims increasingly serve during a period when critical decisions impacting the long-term direction of the district must be made." As Napa Valley, Calif., interim superintendent Giugni says, "The public doesn’t really see any difference in having an interim. They expect business to go on as usual. There are so many public pressures on a school system now that it can’t just sit dead in the water, waiting for a full-time superintendent."

Still, not every interim is asked to make crucial decisions, not every interim superintendent wants to and not every educational observer agrees that temporary administrators should.

When former superintendent Wayne Long returned to Marion-Adams School Corp. in Sheridan, Ind., as its interim leader, both he and the board agreed he would have a limited role.

"In my case as interim, some healing had to be done," he says. "If I did anything, I helped improve relations with the staff. I didn’t make major decisions for the next superintendent. I was at the wheel, but not really telling anybody where to go, just guiding it along.

"I think the important thing to remember as an interim superintendent," says Long, who spent 11 years as a superintendent in Marion-Adams Schools, "is that huge decisions, like huge financial decisions, are not your prerogative."

Neither, in particular, are extensive and long-term curricular changes, many experts say. These are matters that require community collaboration, reflection and cautious advancement.

"It takes about 10 years for a superintendent whose policies are consistent to get people’s trust, to get certain practices changed and to figure out how to refine things," says Harvard’s Moore Johnson. "Anybody who really looks at change sees that it’s hard work that results in a thoughtful difference over time. A person may enter confident he can make changes, but I have real doubts about how much an interim can change."

A Steady Influence
The right interim superintendent in the right situation can stabilize a suddenly disoriented school district. While long-term decision-making may not be an appropriate role for him, the interim superintendent can help revive community confidence, reestablish good business routines and provide expertise for crucial decisions.

When Hank Boer agreed to become interim superintendent in Putnam County Community Unit School District in Granville, Ill., the board extended an invitation for two or three weeks. He ended up staying three months, which spurred an unplanned but successful second career that has seen him assume temporary leadership of four school districts, with a fifth planned this spring. (See related story.)

Boer arrived at Putnam County in June, often a superintendent’s busiest time of year, when he was confronted with building a budget, employing new staff and helping the board decide on a levy campaign.

"It was probably the most positive experience of my administrative career," he says now. "I’ve really recharged my batteries doing this."

Boer understands, as few people do, what it takes to succeed in this tenuous position.

An interim superintendent should be a workaholic who can put in 12- to 14-hour days. He or she should have served in a full-time superintendency and had experience dealing with school finance, personnel, maintenance and labor relations. The best interims will be exceptional listeners and extraordinary team builders. "And probably the most important personal quality is being positive and having a sense of humor. You’re walking into some pretty tense situations," Boer says.

Giugni, an interim superintendent in California who helped place other interim leaders when he was executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, says he looked for someone who was "a risk-taker--someone who can assess a situation quickly. You don’t get six months to look it over."

And when the Princeton, N.J., school board went looking for an interim superintendent last year, the top priority on its list of professional criteria was "somebody with integrity and a willingness to tell us the truth," says board member Flaherty. "We needed someone who would not paper over our problems, but also not start assigning blame."

Ill-Fitting Matches
But just as there are better matches, there are also worse ones. While ambitious lower-level administrators may see an interim position as a way to climb into the top spot, veterans say experience as a full-time superintendent is crucial. Intense pressures, tight deadlines and often only partial authority to deal with them makes a temporary superintendency the worst sort of training ground for inexperienced administrators.

Likewise, most observers of the job say the interim superintendency can be compromised by using inside candidates who are vying for the full-time job. That situation can mean smaller pools of outside applicants, who feel the insider has the advantage, or lingering resentment after the decision is made. "Boards need to be cautioned against that," says Patrick Mark, superintendent of Marion-Adams School Corp. in Sheridan, Ind., who followed interim Wayne Long into the job. "There can be hard feelings if the interim doesn’t get the job after he’s taken ownership of the district."

Mark says Long’s willingness to step out of the job led to a smooth and productive transition. He also had had a long-time mentoring relationship with Long.

However, Susan Moore Johnson believes inside candidates often provide the best chance for continuity of approach and community confidence.

"Sometimes people from inside who were appointed acting superintendent become candidates for the search," she says. "If the district is content with the acting person, it can be a testing time and the candidate can gain support locally. If anything, I see a realization that there may be greater strength to inside candidates than to looking for the hero on the white horse from outside."

Yet whether candidates were insiders or outsiders, school districts traditionally saw them as means to a more permanent end and hurried through the interim period to get to the full-time superintendent.

A Skilled Temp
Now some organizational experts are beginning to look at the interim superintendent as a specialist with a set of skills somewhat unlike those of a traditional superintendent. School boards are spending more time recruiting the right temporary administrator--sometimes using bonuses and all-out courtship to woo an interim superintendent--who may not be the ideal permanent candidate, but who can help the district through some temporary tough times.

Leslie Fenwick, whose doctoral dissertation closely followed an interim superintendency in Ohio, believes this is the wisest use of temporary school leaders.

"In business administration there are transitional management associations composed of CEOs, often retired, who have special skills in transitional management. They were trained for it. One of the recommendations I make is that educational administration programs in transitional management arise, or that associations like AASA initiate them," she says. "Maybe the best person to take on an interim superintendency is a specialist. He or she knows how to go in for a short time and use a very specific skill set. You need a bond issue passed, call Joe. They’re known around the country. They would handle the issue and then move on."

This new breed of narrowly trained, highly specialized leader, moving from one district to another as his or her strengths are required, may be a wave of the future in school leadership.

The position, fully understood and planned for, may help districts not only survive quick and temporary changes in leadership, but even benefit from them. And an interim superintendency, once it is better analyzed, may offer new insight into the full-time superintendency.

"What does interim really mean with regular superintendents’ tenure spiraling so much?" Fenwick asks. "With interim superintendents’ tenure growing --maybe everybody is really an interim."

Krista Ramsey is a free-lance education writer in Cincinnati, Ohio. E-mail: krista_ramsey@hotmail.com