Spotlight

My Experience as a Shared Superintendent

by Caroline B. Winchester

I began my journey as a shared superintendent in central Nebraska communities of Elba and Wolbach in July 2000 after serving for three years as a combination superintendent/principal in a neighboring district. The school boards in Elba and Wolbach believed the sharing of costs for a superintendent would be a beneficial arrangement for both.

The Elba board had endured a rapid succession of superintendents so the members were seeking an individual who could bring vision and stability to the 165-student district.

Coincidentally, my field study for my specialist degree in educational leadership and later my doctoral dissertation focused on the financial aspects of the shared superintendency. So for three years I would live through what I had researched.

Principals’ Importance
My findings closely mirrored my experiences. I discovered for a shared superintendent to be effective, a quality principal is needed at each site. Whenever the superintendent is in the second location, the principal becomes the district’s main contact person for patrons and staff. Often the principal takes on added responsibilities such as coordinating transportation and school food service.

Board members need to understand and accept that their superintendent won’t be present all the time if a shared superintendency is going to work. It’s no different than the superintendent who has multiple attendance centers in a district. In rural communities, the expectations for the superintendent’s regular presence run very high.

I split my time by spending Mondays and Wednesdays in one district and Tuesdays and Thursdays in the second. On Fridays I spent time in both, which were located about 30 minutes apart. I even made a special shirt in a neutral color bearing the logos of both districts so I wasn’t changing shirts all the time on Fridays, traditionally the day staff members dress in the school colors in preparation for an athletic event.

For me, the biggest advantage of the shared superintendency was the availability of a principal to discuss ideas. When I worked as a superintendent/principal, the only place I could turn to for guidance was the school board. Once that happens the board moves out of its policy mode and into too many operational decisions. All of us — the superintendent, board and principal — focused on our respective roles more effectively in a shared superintendency than was the case with just one administrator.

Cost Savings
One drawback often mentioned is the time commitment in a shared superintendency. There are multiple school boards, multiple board meetings and redundancy of paperwork. In rural communities a superintendent is 24/7. When not at school the superintendent is out in the community representing the district and establishing relationships. While responsibilities may differ, the commitment is full time no matter in what capacity the superintendent is serving.

Finances are the No. 1 reason school boards think about sharing a superintendent. In my arrangement, the two districts also shared a special education teacher. We also received volume discounts when purchasing items such as copying machines.

The two districts experienced a significant savings in superintendent salaries during the first year. Some modest savings remained after five years, but other expenses had increased by then as responsibilities once handled by the two superintendents were shifted to principals and other staff closer to students.

It is clear there must be a higher good that comes from sharing a superintendent if it is to be effective and long-lasting. The arrangement has to be about learning and creating a positive, supportive climate with high expectations for student success.

Personal Connections
Why do boards consider sharing a superintendent? First, rural communities feel it is important for them to maintain a viable school district. However, it is also about relationships. Students who feel they have a place to which they belong are better students. Their grades and attendance are higher, and their behavior is more positive. They know someone cares about and wants them to be successful.

In Elba, we had a student who had transferred from a larger district. He brought with him a lot of baggage — poor attendance, negative attitude and low grades. After coming to Elba he was required to take a speech class that led to participation in an all-school play. This student had a small part in which he walked across the stage a couple of times and said one line.

The following year the student participated in one act. The play went on to compete in the state tournament, and the student was named outstanding actor. Afterward, he approached his teacher and said, “Mrs. G, I have never won anything before in my entire life.” The transformation in that student was amazing, and he went on to attend technical school.

In his book The Imperfect Union, Alan Peshkin states: “… a school should be small enough that its students are not redundant.” If sharing a superintendent results in improved efficiency without curbing student learning, then it is a strategy small school districts should certainly consider.

Caroline Winchester is the superintendent of the Loup City School District 1, P.O. Box 628, Loup City, NE 68853. E-mail: cwinches@esu10.org