For Just-in-Time Answers, Superintendents Look to the Inbox

Long Island, N.Y., school superintendents are using technology to tap into a valuable source of information: each other’s expertise.

The superintendents are participants in Leaders-Net, an electronic discussion forum, or listserve, where they post and respond to e-mail questions from each other about anything from school district policies to recruiting principals.

“Say someone wants to rent out your auditorium,” explains John A. Richman, superintendent of the Plainedge, N.Y., Public Schools. “You may be aware of the legal ramifications, but you want to know whether other districts in the area do that, and if so, what they charge. You just send an e-mail out, and within five or 10 minutes you have an answer to your question.”

Richman said a popular question posted in February as school officials began the budgeting process was, “Have any of you calculated how much your budget is going up?” In the past, getting an accurate sampling of data would have involved sending out questionnaires or making dozens of phone calls. “This makes life very simple if you just need down-and-dirty information very quickly,” he says.

A Popular Tool
Michael Keany is director of the Long Island School Leadership Center, the group that sponsors the listserve. The center is an administrative support group funded by three local Boards of Cooperative Educational Services and several regional universities. Keany says the listserve is popular, noting that 102 of the 114 Long Island school superintendents participate.

Several AASA state affiliates also operate listserves that offer just-in-time support. The Illinois Association of School Administrators may run one of the more widely used multi-way mailing lists for its 1,075 active superintendent members, 46 percent of whom have opted to be included. In mid-March, a superintendent from a small district posted a message late one afternoon about negotiating a new contract for teachers and asked what percentage increase other districts had given in the past year. By noon the following day, a dozen responses had been posted for all to see.

Other Illinois postings in the same week dealt with questions about leasing computer equipment for schools, criminal background checks on building contractors, and a job description for a combined superintendent/ principal position.

The Long Island center actually runs separate listserves for 38 different groups, including principals, assistant principals, department chairs, minority administrators and aspiring administrators. In all, a total of 5,300 people participate.

Earlier this year, athletic directors conversed on their listserve about the most economical ways to refurbish football helmets, while aspiring administrators perused lists of administrative openings.

Richman, who has been superintendent in Plainedge for eight years, says he participates in the listserve daily, sometimes accessing his office files from home electronically so he can respond to a colleague’s question in the evening or over a weekend. “Invariably, most of the stuff that comes up, someone else has dealt with at some time,” he says.

The listserve also builds collegiality. “Some of these people I’ve never, ever met personally, but still you’re on a first-name basis and feel you know each other,” says Richman.

Jo Campbell, superintendent in LaHarpe, Ill., feels the same way about the Illinois listserve, which she says has been valuable in “making new contacts with colleagues and maintaining existing networks and friendships.”

Richman also appreciates the fact that Keany regularly uses the listserve to disseminate book reviews, relevant newspaper stories and journal articles on a wide range of leadership issues. “It’s a good way for us to keep up with what’s happening in the field,” he says.

According to Keany, the Long Island listserves, which were established in 2003, are funded through a grant from the New York State Legislature. State Sen. Carl L. Marcellino was instrumental in securing the grant, Keany said. Plans are under way to expand the service to the rest of the state.

— Priscilla Pardini