Contract Negotiation as a Transition Process

by Torch Lytle

What I’ve learned from the experience of being appointed superintendent in Trenton, N.J., and from conversations with colleagues is that one of the most challenging aspects of becoming a superintendent is managing your relationship with the board of education.

The transition from being a candidate to being the school board’s first choice happens quickly, and the temptation is to get your employment contract signed as fast as possible so you can get on with the job.

My strong advice is that instead of rushing to seal the deal, take some time to pause and reflect. What is it about you that makes you the board’s preferred candidate? What did the board, district employees, parents and the community learn about you as the selection process evolved? Have those you’ve worked with elsewhere given you strong support, or do you have history that may create doubts? Are you the right one for this job at this time? Do your experience, disposition and capabilities match what this district needs right now? Do you get good vibes from the board? How many of its members are committed to long-term service?

Taking time for introspection and reflection at this point to do your own learning and to talk with trusted confidants will dramatically improve chances for later success.

Plenty to Ask
Keep the questions below — and your answers — in mind as you approach your contract negotiations, and be sure to have your own attorney as you navigate this task. That way an intermediary can manage whatever difficult issues may emerge. And call the state superintendents’ association for a copy of its model contract. It will incorporate items specific to laws and regulations in your state.

In weighing what you want addressed in the contract, here are some questions you might consider:

• How am I going to use my contract negotiations and language to clarify my relationship to the board? For example, what will be the board’s role in personnel selection and appointment?

• Am I amenable to performance incentives?

• How will the terms of my contract affect subsequent negotiations with various employee groups?

• What are my salary and benefit requests, and how do these compare to those of my predecessors and of superintendents in comparable districts?

• Should I defer some of the compensation in an annuity, for example, payable after three years of satisfactory service?

• Are the performance expectations reasonable given the conditions and context at the time of my appointment?

An Early Signal
Negotiating your contract isn’t simply a business transaction. As the superintendent, you are probably the only employee with whom the board has an individual agreement. Developing and authorizing your contract will signal to the board a great deal about who you are and what you’re about. Are you really all about children, or does your self-interest come first?

Your contract is also a public document so you need to be prepared for criticism if any of the provisions seem too generous or unconventional. (I can remember the hullabaloo when a newly appointed urban superintendent insisted on a provision that she be provided a new automobile as a part of her contract, then purchased an expensive European model — not a good way to start.)

The biggest problems in the whole contract-negotiating process are wanting the job too much and getting caught up in the image of yourself leading this community, with the result that you agree to a contract that doesn’t give you adequate protection, authority to do your job and compensation that equates to the risk and demands of the position.

— Torch Lytle

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