Managing Your Arrival as the New Superintendent

by Torch Lytle

When I was named superintendent (chief school administrator) in Trenton, N.J., in June 1998, I was well-aware that I was the first white superintendent in more than 20 years and that the mayor, an African American, had taken a political risk in supporting my appointment.

On the evening of my formal appointment, with me sitting in a side room waiting to be introduced, the board of education met until after midnight while the board president tried to cajole a recalcitrant member into voting for my appointment so as to make it unanimous.

At one point the board’s attorney appeared and asked whether I would be willing to accept the position at a salary $15,000 less than the advertised salary. Figuring that if I compromised now, I’d face a continuing series of pressures to compromise, I said no. Eventually the opposition member (who’d supported another candidate) backed down, the board voted unanimously, and we all shared a moment of triumph.

The school board was determined that my contract contain perform-ance incentives to give them leverage in upcoming negotiations with teachers and administrators. I wasn’t opposed to bonus provisions, but I was very uncomfortable with the notion that I stood to gain as much as $25,000 annually for work that was being done by teachers, principals and support staff.

I suggested a compromise. I would agree to the bonus provision on the condition that 80 percent of whatever I earned was put in a “last dollar scholarship” fund for graduating seniors who were college-bound. The board agreed, and over the next six years the total contribution amounted to well over $100,000.

My contract also provided that I have use of an automobile. I opted for one from the motor pool. I took a used desk for my office and put it in a corner facing the window so that I was never sitting behind a desk when someone entered. The only furniture I ordered were file cabinets and bookcases.

My wife and I bought a townhouse in a neighborhood close to the city center, prompting a newspaper article reporting that I was the first superintendent in years to live in the city (although we kept our house in Philadelphia, where my wife worked).

The important point is that through a series of entry decisions, I was intentionally managing the symbols surrounding the arrival of a new superintendent and signifying my commitment to the city and its children by building trust.