A Rural Superintendent’s Challenges and Rewards

by Paul D. Tobin

Many aspects of school district leadership are the same regardless of the size or location of the district, including administrative training and the basic elements of effective leadership. However, several key differences make the leadership experience in a rural school setting a distinct challenge.

Thirty of my 33 years as an educator have been spent in rural school districts in Illinois, working as a principal or a superintendent. I am in my fifth year at Preston Community Schools in rural eastern Iowa. I serve in the dual capacity of district superintendent and elementary school principal.

The mention of my dual role raises one of the major challenges of rural school leadership. Compared to our large-district counterparts, rural superintendents must wear numerous and varied hats to meet the demands of state and federal initiatives, manage local politics and ensure students receive the highest quality public education. Large and urban districts typically have several administrators charged with handling these myriad education tasks and responsibilities, but that’s not always the case in rural districts.

Superintendents in smaller, rural communities often must assume responsibility for a wider array of tasks, and it’s not uncommon for a district superintendent to serve concurrently as an elementary principal, high school principal, athletic director or curriculum specialist. During the past 15 years, I have served a dual role as a superintendent and elementary principal in two school districts. My business manager, school board secretary and elementary secretary all have multiple assignments as well.

The decision-making process is usually more expedient in a rural district as the chain of command often comes down to no more than two people. The superintendent usually has quick and easy input to all phases of the school district’s operations.

More With Less
Rural school leaders also face unique political issues — I prefer to consider them hurdles — that our counterparts in larger districts may address quite differently or not at all. One prime example: Maintaining quality learning opportunities despite declining enrollment, limited resources and inadequate per-pupil funding from state and federal sources, while operating with a central-office staff of one.

My first superintendency was in a K-12 district of 575 students in Mt. Carroll, Ill. Prior to my arrival, the district had two unsuccessful attempts to consolidate with and/or annex a neighboring district. Mt. Carroll was in significant debt and the board was uncertain about its financial solvency.

After several strategy and goal-setting meetings with the school board, we decided to cut staff and propose a referendum for an education fund tax increase. Employing those two strategies helped eliminate the district debt over a four-year period. The community then passed a referendum for a new junior and senior high school, which resulted in the community’s first school construction in 42 years.

These successes resulted, in part, from good communication and close work with the school board, a citizens advisory committee, staff, students, community members and state legislators. (Two pieces of legislation had to be passed in the Illinois General Assembly to permit the construction.) I am proud of my role in helping pull the district out of its financial straits and appreciate the opportunity to work closely with various groups to help define, develop and implement changes to improve educational experiences of children.

Rural school administrators generally are much more upfront and personal with students, parents and community members. I like the fact everyone knows who you are in the rural and small towns where you live and work.

Being Heard
In 1991, my first year as a superintendent in Illinois, several colleagues encouraged me to join a group of 50 or 60 other Illinois school districts (mostly rural) to support a recently filed lawsuit against the state board of education and the governor. The lawsuit involved a state funding equity issue. The suit claimed Illinois chronically failed to fund schools adequately and equitably as required by the state constitution.

I agreed to get involved and was appointed to the executive board of the Committee for Educational Rights, the lawsuit coalition of school districts. For three years, I traveled across the state to committee meetings and school board meetings. I sat through circuit court, appellate court and Illinois Supreme Court hearings, which were a great learning experience.

Ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected our claim. The past eight years have seen three different blue ribbon education funding committees appointed by three different governors make similar recommendations for funding changes to better support rural schools, but the recommendations have never been acted upon by the Illinois General Assembly.

This experience demonstrated the great need to convince rural superintendents to work jointly on common rural funding and educational issues. Whenever education-related bills are proposed at any level of government, superintendents should be part of the process. As an AASA member for 15 years, I’ve been fortunate to have superintendent mentors walk me through the political process. They taught me the art of communicating with politicians. Don Kussmaul of East Dubuque, Ill., and AASA’s immediate past president, helped immensely in this skill-learning process.

Those skills remain important when I participate with AASA public policy staff at superintendent workshops and helped me contribute to the passage in 2000 of the Rural Education Achievement Program, an important federal grant program for rural school districts with 600 or fewer students. The legislative policy for the REAP grant was developed by AASA members.

Sometimes rural educators feel distant from the big-city issues that seem to dominate our mass media. Being an active member of AASA has given me the knowledge and confidence to contact elected officials and other public figures on vital education issues and legislation related to rural communities.

I stand as proof that all rural school leaders can and should play an important role in educating our children. The rewards are well worth the challenges.

Paul Tobin is superintendent of the Preston Community School District, 121 S. Mitchell St., Preston, IA 52069. E-mail: