Few Lame Ducks or Placeholders: A Study of the Interim Ranks


Interim superintendent appointments are on the rise nationwide and so is the length of their tenures.

Those were among the major findings in a recent study of interim school district leadership that I completed for a doctorate in educational policy and leadership at Ohio State University. Through the use of a case study in a suburban Midwest school district, I examined the role of the interim superintendent as a decision maker or a placeholder.

No other in-depth studies have specifically targeted the unique nature of the interim superintendency.

Long-Term Decisions

The conditions facing the superintendency that have contributed to this emerging phenomenon are quite well known: higher turnover rates, lessening job appeal, a shrinking pool of candidates, more protracted superintendent searches led by professional firms and the economic, political and social stresses inherent in public school leadership today.

Because of these dynamics, an interim superintendent’s tenure often is not a lame-duck administration. Rather, more interim superintendents are serving longer and they are faced with leading the school districts through flux and change. Interim superintendents are making decisions that often, by necessity, have long-term impact on the course and direction of the district.

According to AASA Executive Director Paul Houston, roughly 15 percent of the nation’s school districts at any one time are led by acting or interim superintendents. Since 1994, the Jackson, Miss., schools have had three superintendents, two of whom have been interim appointees. During its full-year superintendent search, the New Orleans Public Schools went through three interim superintendents. Dayton, Ohio, has had an interim superintendent serving under a month-to-month contract. As of mid-January, several of the nation’s biggest systems, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit, were scrambling to fill superintendencies, and in the transition, their school boards appointed interim leaders.

Various Types
My research identified four types of interim superintendents.

* Type I: This is the interim superintendent who desires the superintendent position as evidenced by submission of an application for the position, is considered for the position of superintendent as evidenced by interviews with the district’s selection committee and is appointed to the position directly after serving as the district’s interim superintendent.

* Type II: This is the interim superintendent who desires the permanent appointment and is considered for the position, but is not appointed to the position after serving as interim.

*Type III: This is the interim who desires the superintendent position and applies for the position, but is not offered an interview with the selection committee and is not selected.

* Type IV: This is the interim superintendent who only plans to serve as interim and has no desire for the full-time appointment. The individual does not apply, is not interviewed and is not appointed to the permanent post.

Inside and Outside
The school board’s interim appointment comes either from inside the current ranks or from outside the district, depending on the immediate needs and circumstances. When an insider is named interim superintendent, she or he is usually one of the three subtypes: a building-level leader, a central-office administrator or a former district superintendent.

A building-level administrator, usually a principal, is someone highly visible and favored in the school district. This administrator may have significant charisma and/or political clout. The central-office administrator is a deputy or assistant superintendent or a director in the district who is viewed by the board of education as capable of leading the school district during an administrative transition period. The former district superintendent (often retired) is a favored superintendent who has served in the district previously.

When an outsider is appointed as interim school chief, she or he is usually one of five types: a professional consultant, a former or retired superintendent, a central-office administrator, a career interim or a university official.

The professional consultant is an individual who has participated in numerous superintendent searches, having served on committees or teams. She or he is thoroughly familiar with the qualifications for and demands of the position. The former or retired superintendent is an experienced school chief who has not worked previously in the district. The central-office administrator is an assistant superintendent or director from another district.

Career interims are veteran administrators who have made a second career out of filling interim positions. They are experts in transitional leadership. As interim superintendents they may be specialists in that they have earned a reputation for handling a particular task well. The university official is typically a professor, dean or president, usually with credentials in education, specifically educational administration.

Leslie Fenwick is a visiting fellow with The Principals’ Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 6 Appian Way, Cambridge, MA. 02138. E-mail: