Interviewing the Lions in Their Den

Two former superintendents lend advice on what to expect in the way of questioning when you face a school board in the course of a job search by KENNETH T. MURRAY and BARBARA A. MURRAY

Someone once said that a person never receives a second chance to make a good first impression. This axiom never has been more true than when interviewing with a school board for the position of superintendent.

Veterans of this experience even have expanded on the axiom with a metaphorical reference to Christians and lions. Certainly, such an interview is a challenge for the job-hunting superintendent.

School board members are, by definition, amateurs at selecting school superintendents and often make hiring decisions based on gut feelings in the interview. They may like the looks of the successful candidate, his or her prior work experience or geographic availability. Most often, however, it is the candidate’s presence and demeanor in the interview that influence the school board’s selection. In fact, one successful Midwestern superintendent was overheard to claim: "I might not be the best superintendent in the world, but I can certainly knock a school board off its feet in a two-hour interview."

Thorough Research
Of course, the first contact any applicant has with the hiring board is on paper. Be sure your application materials are neat and professional looking. If invited for an interview, the applicant should be wellprepared and never go into an interview cold. Your goal is to present yourself in the best possible light.

Prior to the interview, you should research the school district to learn the name of each school board member, his or her profession and whether the member has school-age children. Look also for current political issues, school district demographics and even local intergovernmental relationships or lack thereof.

Do not drive your restored Corvette to the interview but arrive punctually in the most conservative automobile you own. Dress professionally but do not overdress. If you are interviewing with a conservative school board (is there any other kind?), do not wear cuff links and a tie bar. A conservative suit or sport jacket probably will suffice. Female candidates likewise should appear conservatively professional. Be aware that some object to women wearing slacks.

In addition, during introductions, avoid a wet-dish-towel type handshake. Shake hands firmly, though try not to take all the board members to their knees. Remember their names from your research and place them with faces. Thereafter, call each by his or her name. To do so is impressive, particularly if the school board did not have enough foresight to provide name placards.

Be prepared to answer questions that may not be legal to ask. Both of us have been asked questions in such interviews about marriage, church, children and even personal finances. When asked where you intend to live if offered the position, you must answer that you intend to purchase a home within the school district. To answer otherwise is a career-limiting response.

If asked a question about salary, avoid giving a figure. Instead, say something to the effect of "My current package includes family health benefits with dental, use of a school district-owned automobile, a retirement annuity of ___ and a salary of ___ ." Adjust this statement to meet your situation but understand that the school board already knows (or should know) your present salary, so do not stretch the truth.

Finally, in your preparation try to anticipate some questions so you can formulate answers. This practice not only helps you maintain your interview demeanor--looking each board member in the eye and calling each by name--but also helps develop a productive mindset.

What follows are questions that the authors and other candidates for superintendencies have been asked during interviews. Included also are some sample responses that may or may not be appropriate for you. They are offered as a catalyst for your thinking and preparation.

Sample Queries
Q: What kind of working relationship you would like to see between the superintendent and the board?

A: One of close communication where the superintendent is the educational leader. He or she must have only one direction from the board.

Q: How should the board evaluate the performance of the superintendent?

A: By the end product. Does the school district function smoothly and within financial constraints? Is the district moving toward the goals set by the board?

[Nota bene: Too often the superintendent’s evaluation is little more than a list of complaints submitted by each board member--many of which conflict with others. The superintendent must have a single message from the school board acting as a single unit.]

Q: What administrative structure would you provide to work with fellow administrators in the school system?

A: Team administration. All of the administrators must feel part of the total administrative team. However, because the ultimate responsibility lies with the CEO, the superintendent must be the captain of the team and make the final decision.

[Nota bene: In this instance the school board will probably know what they are looking for. If the last superintendent seemed a little lax in supervision so that some obvious problems developed, the school board might be looking for a candidate who is more assertive in his or her administrative style. The reverse, however, may also be true. Hopefully, your prior research revealed the situation. Just be careful not to view school administration through the eyes of a drill sergeant. Few school administrators who approach the job with such an attitude are successful.]

Board Interference
Q: How might you handle a situation where a board member becomes involved in executive and/or administrative matters?

A: This is a difficult situation and depends largely on my relationship with the board member. Very tactfully--informally and privately, if possible--I would advise the board member that he or she is extending himself or herself. If that does not work, I would inform the board president and ask for help.

[Nota bene: This problem probably has occurred on the board you are facing, although you may not know to which member the question refers. Be careful--the lions are touchy!]

Q: Assume that the board ruled against a policy or practice that you favored. Could you accept this setback in such a way that would not jeopardize your relationship with the board? Have you ever experienced such a situation?

A: The school system belongs to the community and the board serves as the public’s representatives. The superintendent, while the educational leader, is an employee of the community.

[Nota bene: At this point you may wish to relate a relevant past experience.]

Q: What are your feelings about the use of school facilities by community groups such as Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Little League?

A: The more the school facilities are used by responsible and worthwhile community organizations, the better. The community owns these facilities and should be using them. Such cooperation between the school district and community groups is very desirable and relates to community support of the school district and its programs.

Instructional Role
Q: To what extent do you think the superintendent can or should function as an instructional leader?

A: The superintendent is the educational leader. I see the principals as the instructional leaders. The superintendent should become involved as much as is necessary to direct or supplement the efforts of the principals.

[Nota bene: The wording of this question and answer will be dictated by the size of the school district. Larger school districts have assistant superintendents, associate superintendents, area superintendents or directors at the district level who become directly involved with instruction.]

Q: Are some areas of instruction and learning more important than others? If so, which? Why?

A: Yes. Life skill classes are more important. We offer many valuable courses to improve the quality of the student’s life as an adult. The most important classes, however, are those that make adult life possible or tolerable.

Q: In which areas of administration do you feel most qualified and comfortable? In which areas do you feel least comfortable?

[Nota bene: There is nothing wrong with identifying your weak areas. To hedge on this question indicates a lack of self-awareness, but be prepared to outline how you are working to improve. What the school board should be looking for in this answer is some indication of humility and self-awareness.]

Q: Describe the system you would implement to evaluate teachers and administrators in the system.

A: I prefer management by objectives in which each employee is evaluated upon goals and objectives that are mutually set by the employee and the supervisor/evaluator.

[Nota bene: Teacher evaluations are probably dictated by the collective bargaining agreement.]

Budget Development

Q: Explain how you might go about developing a school budget in a school system of our size.

A: I would meet with principals (depending on the size of the school district) to determine priority needs with a zero-based budget. I like to work, at least for the first year, from the ground up on budgeting.

[Nota bene: Remember that the superintendent cannot create money that is not there. Most budget requirements are pretty well set before the superintendent begins work. In most school districts, from 80 to 85 percent of the budget already is consumed by employee salaries and benefits, and each employee wants a raise. Other items that are not discretionary for the superintendent include electricity, telephone, other utilities and fuel costs.

Many persons are under the mistaken impression that a good superintendent can bring in outside dollars from state and/or federal grants. The truth is that there is grant money available, however, it is always categorical. That is to say it must be spent for a specific item or purpose which may not be the desire or need of the school district in question. Furthermore, many such grants are in the form of matching funds, which require the school district to spend some of its own money for the item or purpose. Thus, the promise of "free money" from grants is not as bright as many persons believe. The reality is that no superintendent has very much discretion in the budgetary process but is merely trying to make ends meet.]

Q: What is a defensible position for a board and the administration to take relative to collective negotiations with the teachers and support personnel?

A: The school board and administration should be as fair and equitable as possible but within priority confines of the budget. Remember that even though the school board members may personally know many employees of the school district, the collective bargaining process is business. They should not allow themselves to personalize the process.

A Graceful Exit
These questions are just a few that an applicant for a school superintendency might expect to be asked by an interviewing school board. Of course, there are countless others that you should try to anticipate, some of which may be discovered during your initial investigation of the school district and community.

At the conclusion of your interview, look each school board member in the eye, shake hands and thank him or her for the interview, addressing each by name. Do not appear anxious by asking when a decision will be made or otherwise display insecurity. Simply leave gracefully and reflect on your performance and survival of the process.

Remember, there will be other interviews and even more lions.

Kenneth Murray and Barbara Murray are associate professors of educational leadership at the University of Central Florida, 12424 Research Parkway, Suite 215D, Orlando, FL 32816-0650. E-mail: murray@mail.ucf.edu. Both previously worked as superintendents.