Why We Went to an Interim

For various reasons, superintendents may find themselves in the unenviable position of having to hire a principal a few weeks, or even a few days, before the first day of school. The immediate need poses a serious dilemma.

Do you search for a new permanent principal for a school year that starts in only a few weeks? Do you promote someone quickly from within the organization or try to fill in with central-office administrators to get through the year? Or do you hire an interim principal to run the school for a year?

When I faced this predicament recently, I opted for the latter.

I hired an interim principal for the 450-student primary school in my district. The vacancy cropped up just three weeks before the opening day of school when the incumbent accepted an administrative position in another district. That late date did not provide me with sufficient time to conduct a comprehensive search for a worthy replacement.

Furthermore, a superintendent who begins a search for a new principal in July is unlikely to find a sufficient number of qualified candidates to consider for the vacancy. In all probability, the better candidates already will have been hired by other school districts.

I recommended the school board employ an interim principal so we could have time to recruit and hire the most effective educator for this vital role.

Making the Decision
Before settling on the interim option, I spoke with superintendents in neighboring districts who had faced a similar need on short notice. Rather than search for permanent replacements, these superintendents too had decided to hire interim principals—and all reported having good experiences.

I first considered the viability of promoting someone from within the district. If a qualified internal candidate had been available, I would have promoted him or her to the principalship. However, I did not have that option.

The other alternative—covering the various responsibilities by assigning central-office administrators—places a tremendous burden on staff and could lead to sub-par performances in critical areas. Further, you cannot measure the lost districtwide opportunities that may result when central-office administrators devote a significant amount of time fulfilling other duties.

In my district, other than the superintendent, the curriculum director is the only qualified central-office administrator available to assume some of the principal’s responsibilities. If I were to share the work of a principal with the curriculum director, I’m certain that curriculum development would have been done at a much slower pace.

Obviously, the person hired to be the interim is absolutely critical. As with any key hiring decision, the superintendent must complete some homework, conduct a thorough interview and check references closely when appointing an interim principal. The decision is far too important to rush through just to have a warm body in place for the first day of school.

Matching Needs
Interim principals tend to come from the ranks of recently retired principals and other administrators who have the energy, skills and desire to work in a leadership capacity in a school. Retirees will have appropriate credentials and relevant experiences in other districts so their perspectives on issues could be valuable to the superintendent.

Other districts’ leaders might be able to provide names of potential candidates for the interim position, and university professors could serve as a resource.

The goal is to find an interim who would be a good match for the school. Is the school high functioning with an experienced staff or is it a low-performing school with a staff plagued by turnover? The answer should help guide your interim hiring choice.

In a school already running effectively, I’d want an interim with good interpersonal skills who has the ability to work well with staff, manage the day-to-day operations, develop a rapport with students and communicate with parents. In addition, cultivating the support of a school secretary is vital to the success of the interim principal.

In the case of a low-performing school, it may be prudent to hire an interim who could begin the hard work of school improvement. This could mean challenging the status quo, bringing order to the school or exploring models of instructional programs. In these circumstances, the interim will have to be able to make unpopular decisions and take a stand on controversial issues.

Setting Expectations
What do you want your interim principal to accomplish? Consider this question before completing your hire. It will help you establish clear expectations.

As the superintendent, you may want the interim principal to accomplish the following:

* Establish a good rapport with students and staff. The interim I hired for a primary school had a huge collection of stuffed animals and puppets that he used to tell stories when he visited classrooms.

* Communicate effectively with parents. Our interim attended special events after school hours, sent home monthly newsletters and participated in parent conferences.

* Work toward school improvement and contribute to the accomplishment of district goals. Our interim worked with staff and parents to develop strategies to accomplish school and district goals that would be carried out in the years following.

* Solve routine problems. Our temporary principal did not ignore the everyday problems that crop up. A principal’s advisory committee, consisting of teachers and the school secretary, can provide a wonderful mechanism for problem solving and planning.

* Plan the next school year. In the spring, the interim developed the schedule for the following school year and assisted with interviewing teacher applicants. The interim also met with the newly hired permanent replacement to review pertinent matters to bring about a smooth transition.

Disadvantages Too
Hiring an interim principal has advantages and disadvantages. The primary advantages are twofold: It provides the school with an experienced administrator who is capable of fulfilling the responsibilities and it gives the superintendent sufficient time to conduct a comprehensive search for a new principal.

Another advantage is cost. Possibly the salary of the interim could be lower than the permanent principal as the interim may be expected to devote less time to the role on evenings and weekends than a permanent hire.

The disadvantage in hiring an interim is that staff, students and parents have to adjust twice in a short period to new leadership. During transitions, it’s difficult to establish a routine. Procedures once taken for granted cannot be done until the new principal is set in place.

In addition, an interim may lead to problems with continuity and consistency. Following through on schoolwide goals becomes more difficult.

In addition, hiring an interim may require other administrators and staff in the district to assume responsibilities that otherwise would be assumed by the regular principal. It could become taxing for the staff, especially the school secretary.

Defining Duties
Our one-year interim appointment basically accomplished what I had hoped by buying me the time to find a permanent replacement who would serve the longer-term interests of our elementary school.

The interim principal I hired exceeded my expectations. He fulfilled all of his responsibilities in a professional manner, such as teacher evaluations, parent conferences, school newsletters, managing student behavior and scheduling special events. Within a short time, he developed a wonderful rapport with students and staff. During regular visits to classrooms, he wore silly hats and read to children. Students and staff became very fond of him. In fact, from time to time, he visits the school and participates in special programs.

The interim was a retired principal from a local suburban school district. His administrative experience ranged from elementary to middle school. This was not his first interim position. He had a similar position the previous year. After completing the interim position in my school district, he decided to take a year off from working and spend more time traveling with his wife.

Roger Prosise is superintendent of Diamond Lake School District 76, 25807 Diamond Lake Road, Mundelein, IL 60060. E-mail: rprosise@d76.lake.k12.il.us