Guest Column

Hidden Rules of the Superintendency



In the superintendency it is easy to see the things you are looking for. What blindsides us are those unanticipated things that no college course teaches and subjects that no one talks about. From those unexpected occurrences, superintendents learn the hidden rules that allow us to survive and eventually to succeed.

During my first superintendency, one traumatic event among several helped me learn some essential points about human nature and to appreciate some little-known rules about communicating when you’re the organization’s leader. These have stuck with me for 23 years.

My first trial-by-fire occurred at an evening school board meeting concerning a proposed tax increase in a small ranching community in south Texas. The crowd had swelled to 250 people in the hot and muggy air of the school cafeteria. To help everyone hear, we turned off the fans.

Most of the attendees were not pleased with my message, which was that the school board needed to boost taxes by 86 percent, which would bring the tax ratio up to 50 percent of market value.

Ninety minutes into the heated discussion, a weathered woman dressed in denim and a red bandana stood on a chair in her muddy boots, shook her fist at me and shouted, "Liar! Liar! All you superintendents are liars! No one taxes at 50 percent of market value."

Knowing my information on this subject was more current than hers, I snapped back, "Drive up the road 50 miles. You’ll find a district that taxes at 75 percent of market value."

At that moment, the lady clutched her head and fell to the floor. An ambulance was called and the paramedics transported her 45 miles to the nearest hospital. She was dead on arrival.
Looking Back

Fortunately, I’ve not had any more people die on me at the 600 school board meetings that followed. As I look back on this episode and my many years of service, I realize the value of following these three points and their corresponding hidden rule.

Key Point No. 1: Emotion and logic don’t mix.

Combining these two are like using water to put out a grease fire--the fire only gets bigger and hotter. The lady in denim had a reaction to the situation that was equal parts anger and frustration. Rather than responding to her with compassion, I became equally irate. I should have met her emotional need with emotional understanding.

Reacting to someone and responding to someone are different things. If I had reached out to the woman and acknowledged her frustration, the outcome of that night might have been different. When people are emotionally charged up they are not looking for logic. They are looking for someone to meet their emotional needs. It is the superintendent’s obligation to reach out to excited people and acknowledge their feelings.

The hidden rule: When people are upset with decisions you make, reach out by listening and tending to their emotional needs before asking them to see another point of view. It does not have to be a win or lose situation. Both sides can be winners.

Key Point No. 2: Never let them see you sweat.

One day I received a call from the city manager. He said, "Could you make a presentation to the NAACP? They are considering relocating their national headquarters to our area." He specifically suggested I emphasize the high success rate of minorities in our school district.

I thought his idea was great. I invited three outstanding members of the African-American community to take part in the session. More than 20 distinguished men and women traveled from Kansas City to hear about our area and its public schools. As I began my well-prepared PowerPoint presentation with a screen that read, "Welcome NAACP," I heard chuckling in the room. Smiling with the crowd, I asked what I had done wrong and why they were laughing. A man in a dark gray suit spoke up and informed me that this group was from the NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and not the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. What a mistake!

I had to be quick on my feet. I adjusted the whole presentation in seconds and proceeded to deliver an appropriate message for the athletics administrators while sweating profusely and dying inside. But they never noticed my unease. In fact, I later received several letters of commendation from members of the delegation.

A superintendent who is unable to think on his or her feet communicates to others that the entire school organization is deficient. In my situation, it was important to communicate that our district was confident and capable of meeting their needs. If you can’t believe in yourself in the darker hours, people will not believe in you during the brighter ones.

The hidden rule: Expect the unexpected, and anticipate the unknown. It will happen to you.

Coalition Building

One of the most important abilities of a successful superintendent is being able to build coalitions that include all members of the community. Superintendents must be accessible to groups. They must get to know the people, speak their language and be highly visible in the community.

People want to know how you, the superintendent, can help them. Start by laying the bricks first. Assist them with their ideas before asking them to support yours.

When my district had to pass the largest bond issue in its history ($171 million), the years of building relationships with the PTA, booster clubs, teacher organizations, churches, service clubs and tax leagues became an essential asset. Since people had learned to believe in the school district, they supported the election.

The hidden rule: The superintendent is on call 24 hours a day, every day, to work harmoniously with the special interests that exist within a community. In this business, everybody is somebody.

Ron Caloss, who recently retired after 23 years as a superintendent in Texas, is vice president for education finance with Morgan Keegan, 5956 Sherry Lane, Suite 1900, Dallas, TX 75225. E-mail: