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The Transition of Overlapping

Superintendents

A distinctive leadership handoff: The pairing of the incoming and outgoing superintendents together for a year

BY SCOTT LAFEE

In the corporate world, the idea of grooming someone for greater office, of providing him or her with time and mentoring to prepare for bigger things to come, is routine, even expected. In public education, it’s far less common — and for the toughest job of all, the public school superintendency — it seems to happen hardly at all.

Why? There are obvious reasons. For one thing, circumstances often render impractical a lengthy, overlapping transition between outgoing and incoming superintendents. The departing administrator may be leaving on short notice, or not by choice.

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Jim Behle, incoming superintendent, and Marcia Ziegler, outgoing superintendent, met regularly during a systematic, yearlong leadership transition in the St. Michael-Albertville Schools in Albertville, Minn.

Marcia Ziegler and James Behle
Before she became superintendent of St. Michael-Albertville Schools in Albertville, Minn., in 2001, Marcia Ziegler was hired for a year to be an assistant administrator to her predecessor, who was planning his retirement.

When Ziegler decided to retire herself nine years later, she became part of reprised history.

“The school board felt that my hiring went so well that they wanted to do that process again,” she says.

Things had changed, of course. The school district, located roughly 30 miles northwest of Minneapolis, had doubled in size to 5,600 students, with all of the added complexities, expected and not. No one wanted a rash, rushed hire. As they had done before, the board advertised for an associate superintendent with the stated intention that the successful applicant would assume the top spot when Ziegler retired one year later. Ziegler would be involved in the search for her replacement.

James Behle, a veteran central-office administrator with the Iowa City, Iowa, schools, got the job, appointed by the six-member school board in June 2010.

“I appreciated the transition process for the same reason the board did,” explains Behle, who recently started his third year as St. Michael-Albertville’s superintendent. “Because I was coming from out of state, it would allow me time to learn about a different school funding system, state assessment practices, curriculum requirements and state laws and regulations. It would allow me to meet staff and introduce myself to the community without the challenges associated with being a first-year superintendent.”

Behle admits he had some concerns at first. He knew Ziegler only from his job interviews. And he recognized it would be at least six months on the job before he would know for certain he actually had the job he wanted. But those worries rapidly disappeared.

Although the suburban district had experienced rapid, dramatic growth, Behle says St. Michael-Albertville proved to be financially sound, well-managed and academically high performing. The district leadership, he acknowledges, knew what it was doing.

“The board included members who had served 16 years or more, indicating to me that the community was pleased with the decisions that had been made,” says Behle, who had spent the previous 31 years of his education career in Iowa. “The board president was clear that the intent was to hire me as superintendent after a period of time learning firsthand about my leadership. I quickly discovered in my conversations with Dr. Ziegler that I could work with her. She outlined a transition plan for both of us that had been approved by the school board. I found a high degree of integrity among the board members and superintendent.”

Much of the transition involved Ziegler imparting her years of accrued local knowledge to Behle, who took up the task of incorporating it in formal manuals, handbooks and special projects.

“I worked on updating and reviewing job descriptions, school board policies, and administrators’ evaluation processes and procedures,” Behle says. “I took on many of the responsibilities associated with a human resources director (a position the district lacked at the time), including facilitating negotiations with the support staff unions. Being able to focus on projects without some of the day-to-day interruptions was very beneficial.”

As planned, Behle was formally offered the superintendent’s job midway through the transition period. Ziegler began transferring responsibilities and authority. By the end of the school year, she was acting as Behle’s assistant superintendent.

Ziegler now is enjoying the fruits of full retirement. Like Behle, she declares the transition plan to be a success — again.

“Ours worked because neither Dr. Behle nor I had any ego issues. I think the one year was pretty ideal. I think it would be more difficult for staff with a longer time period. Also, I believe having a high-quality school board, excellent staff and a progressive community were key.”

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Monte Bridges (top), former superintendent of the Puget Sound Educational Service District in Renton, Wash., and John Welch, who succeeded him after a fullyear overlap.

Monte Bridges and John P. Welch
For John P. Welch, the transition to full-time, full-fledged superintendent began with an unusual title: “Successor Superintendent.”

“We kind of made up that title,” says Welch, chuckling.

Welch was hired to replace Monte Bridges, who had announced plans to retire as head of the K-12 Puget Sound Educational Service District, which provides services to 35 school districts and more than 200 private schools in the Seattle-Tacoma region in Washington state.

“The process started about 2½ years out from my actual retirement,” recalls Bridges, who spent 10 years atop the intermediate agency based in Renton, Wash. “When I realized my deputy superintendent would be retiring a year before my intended retirement, I began thinking that perhaps we could devise a great transition if we hired the next superintendent rather than a deputy and worked together for a year.”

Bridges proposed the idea to his school board, consisting of nine representatives from across the district. After six months of consideration, they approved the novel idea.

Welch, who had been superintendent of nearby Highline Public Schools for six years, arrived at Puget Sound in September 2011. The plan was to elevate him to superintendent on July 1, 2012. “The time between was considered a bit of a trial period,” Welch admits, with the agreement allowing either party to end the experiment at the midpoint.

The transition appeared well-conceived to Welch. Though most day-to-day responsibilities and strategic work initially remained with Bridges, Welch was given opportunities to run several departments and launch a new science, technology, engineering and math network, including development of its five-year business plan.

“Basically, we looked at all of the roles that the superintendent and deputy/successor were providing and began to divide up the work,” Bridges says. “The year was split into thirds, with each third representing a successive increase in responsibility for the incoming person. We stayed connected so that we were both responsible as a team for the total body of work. I acted as a lead, a mentor, a partner, a supervisor and confidential colleague. The role I played was the exact role I perceived that I would play.”

Welch describes the process using an automobile analogy. From September through December 2011, he was in the backseat watching Bridges drive the vehicle. From January through March, he hopped in the front seat while Bridges continued to handle the wheel. After March, Welch moved to the driver’s seat and Bridges rode shotgun until the latter’s departure at the end of the school year.

Both men believe there was no ambiguity over who was in charge during the 10 months of overlap.

“There can be only one superintendent of record. Monte was that person. He signed over the superintendent’s title. But in terms of making decisions, for all practical purposes, I was completely involved and responsible,” says Welch.

Bridges, who now works with doctoral students at the University of Washington, says the transition worked to perfection. Welch credits Bridges.

“This kind of arrangement doesn’t work unless you have the right people involved and the right situation,” Welch says. “I didn’t really know Monte well before I came to Puget Sound, though obviously I got to know him much better. I knew his leadership style though, and that is part of why this worked. Monte was moving on. He wasn’t being ousted. He wanted things to go well.”

Gerald Hill and Michael Nicholson
While attending AASA’s 2010 national conference in Phoenix, Ariz., Michael Nicholson stopped by the booth of the superintendent search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates where William Attea mentioned a leadership succession plan being put in place in a suburban school district just north of Chicago.

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Monte Bridges (left), former superintendent of the Puget Sound Educational Service District in Renton, Wash., and John Welch, who succeeded him after a full year overlap.

At the time, Nicholson was executive director for secondary learning in the Olentangy Local School District, near Columbus, Ohio. He had higher aspirations. The Glenview Public School District, with its 5,000 students in K-12, sounded like a logical move.

He interviewed and landed the job, which was accompanied by a two-year overlap with the outgoing superintendent, Jerry Hill. “The idea for the transition came from the board,” Nicholson says. “Several cabinet positions were planned for turnover, due to retirements, and the board wanted to bring in a senior leader who could be the bridge and leader moving from old to new.”

Glenview’s transition plan was quite detailed, with Nicholson systematically and incrementally introduced to every aspect of the superintendent’s job, from instructional leadership and budget development to strategic planning and public relations. It was ideal on-the-job training for someone who had not worked as a superintendent.

“For the first year,” Nicholson says, “I was responsible for mentoring, evaluating and supervising all the principals; developing and implementing district professional development; and coordinating and overseeing the district’s instructional coaches. Dr. Hill was mainly responsible for working with the board of education and leading the cabinet.”

After being told the school board wanted him to lead the district, Nicholson spent the second year of transition more focused on fleshing out strategies and collaborating with other district administrators.

“The one challenging area involved principals and central-office administrators essentially having two ‘bosses,’ particularly as we entered my final year,” says Hill, who spent eight years as Glenview’s superintendent. “Mike and I had to coordinate our thinking and stay on the same wavelength regarding major projects and initiatives. It worked fine with us but was more difficult for other leaders.”

Nicholson, who served 24 months as the superintendent-in-training, concedes some transitional bumps were inevitable.

“I’m not sure there is a clear way around the inherent confusion that may exist when there is an intentional overlap between superintendents,” says Nicholson, now three months into his second year at Glenview’s helm. “A board may need to accept some confusion while the new leader learns the system and the former leader keeps the system going. Perhaps acknowledging this up front can help mitigate the problem, though I’m not sure the confusion was in the formal command chain as much as in the informal.”

READ MORE:

Leadership Transition by Design

Grooming My Successor for In-District Transition

Components of Overlapping Tenure

Not Everyone’s Taste
Ultimately, the attraction of overlapping leadership boils down to familiarity and experience.

For veteran superintendents moving to new school districts, the idea likely holds little or no attraction, according to executive search experts such as Jacobson. They know the job and what to expect.

School boards, on the other hand, may have a different perspective. They want to know (as best they can) that their selected candidate can handle the diverse and increasingly complex demands of a modern-day superintendency, that there will be no unpleasant surprises, disappointments or regrets after the hire. Some boards are willing to put in the effort, money and time — to wait and see.

But the wait for the designated successor can be painfully long. William R. Shields served as the heir-apparent to outgoing superintendent Hank Gmitro in Bloomingdale, Ill.’s Consolidated Community School District 93 for 2½ years before assuming the top post. Prior to becoming Gmitro’s named successor, Shields had been an assistant superintendent for human resources for three years and had worked in the district for 13 years overall.

“I’m not sure it would work for everyone,” says Shields, now in his fifth year as superintendent in Bloomingdale. “I had a great love for the district and was willing to delay becoming a superintendent elsewhere for the opportunity in an organization I love very much. … It takes tremendous trust and patience, but I believe it’s paid off.”

By the time Shields officially became superintendent on July 1, 2009, he says, “I not only knew every facet of the community, but I also had the experiences of a seasoned superintendent.”

Scott Lafee is a health sciences writer at the University of California, San Diego. E-mail: scott.lafee@gmail.com

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