Time-Tested Counsel for Rookies

by JAY MATHEWS

Asked what advice they would give a superintendent in his or her first year, senior school district leaders emphasize humility and caution.


“Learn to major in the majors,” says Gene Cosby, the superintendent in Hastings, Neb. “Never battle over little hills.” Charles I. Ecker, the 73-year-old superintendent in Carroll County, Md., had a nearly identical thought: “Don’t sweat over the small stuff. … Pick your battles.”

Cosby, 71, is an advocate of starting quietly, like a student at a new school, looking around and listening. “Remember that all or most of the people with whom you work could do the job as well as you if they chose to do so,” he says. “Become an expert at empowerment. Capitalize on the talents of others and let them shine. All people need to feel capable, feel they belong and believe they make a contribution. Create the climate that fulfills those needs for others.”

Ecker endorses that introductory modesty. “A new school superintendent should involve people, should get input from a number of different sources on a difficult issue,” he says. Anthony Perrelli, who at 74 works as the part-time superintendent in Voluntown, Conn., also advises going slow at first. “Don’t make any drastic changes until you’ve been in your new position at least a year,” he says.

But even the newest superintendent has to make a decision, and that is where core values take charge. “The decision must be based on what is best,” Ecker said, “not necessarily what the vocal part of the community wants.”

When Ecker was an elected county executive, he says, he might get a petition with 5,000 signatures on it, “and they would get upset if I did not do what they wanted. But I would tell them, if I did what the 5,000 petition signers wanted, it would adversely affect 230,000 people, and my job was to do what I thought was best, after receiving a lot of input.”

So he supports one of Cosby’s key points: “Be nice! However, be tough when kids are being treated poorly in any way whatsoever.”

Dealing with powerful members of the community can be a problem. “You will find that the level of hypocrisy that is practiced is very high,” says Charlie Mae Knight, 70, superintendent of the Ravenswood district on the San Francisco Peninsula. “You have to know what you want and keep fighting.”

And if you don’t know what you want, don’t be afraid to say so. “Too many people have a feeling that if you say ‘I don’t know’ or if you ask for help, it is a sign of weakness,” Ecker says. “It is a sign of strength to say these things. When a person answers a question with a lot of nonsense or evasion, people see through it very quickly and you lose credibility.”

Once you have displayed such honesty and a consistent desire to involve everyone in the decisions and the important work, the job takes care of itself. “Everyone works at their job,” says Burdette Andrews, at the end of his 61 years as a superintendent. “And everyone knows that everything is progressing according to plan.”