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Grooming My Successor for

In-District Transition 


Valerie SpriggsThe transition at the top of Massachusetts’ Dover-Sherborn Public Schools that took place this past summer had its beginnings four years earlier with the hiring of a highly motivated and well-qualified assistant superintendent.

In the months since, the relationship between the superintendent who made the hiring call (that was me) and the assistant superintendent (Steven Bliss) evolved into a well-recognized partnership, replete with numerous mentoring and coaching moments. Daily meetings between the assistant superintendent and me provided ongoing oversight of the operations of the regional district’s two elementary schools, middle school and high school.

The assistant superintendent was given an array of leadership responsibilities, which he performed well, building on his skill base over time and giving him visibility in front of school board members. While enjoying his work in Dover-Sherborn, he also felt prepared to advance in his career.

A Bold Advance
I wanted to do whatever possible to retain him. At a joint meeting I convened of the three school committees that have a governing say over the Dover-Sherborn schools, I addressed the districts’ future and the importance of retaining highly effective in-district leadership. The school committees unanimously agreed in good faith to increase the assistant superintendent’s annual salary. But neither party made commitments or promises beyond that.

It was perhaps not the best strategy for me to be asking for a raise for the assistant superintendent and discussing my own retirement earlier than planned, even though I had a comfortable relationship with members of the school committees. However, it was right for the districts.

During the following year, the assistant superintendent and I discussed my plans for retirement, his advancement and a possible transition scenario. I mapped the three districts’ needs, anticipated work, upcoming contract negotiations, new initiatives and state regulations and requirements. We decided to bring forward a proposal to the school committees for a smooth transition in leadership six months down the road. If the proposal was not going to receive the committee’s buy-in, the assistant had time to begin his search for his first superintendency elsewhere.

The proposal included a review of our accomplishments over the previous 3½ years and the assistant’s readiness for the top role, including his new skills, problem-solving abilities and management of new programs. His position resembled an internship, comparable in respects to the medical profession’s residency program.

An Extended Overlap
I proposed to retire a year early, with the blessing of the school committees, while the assistant would be appointed the next superintendent. Under the arrangement, I would provide a year of consulting services, functioning as a safety net if or when my successor needed the support.

The traditional search process would be suspended, yielding a significant financial savings for the three school committees. They asked the two of us to develop an in-district transition plan, leading to a seamless transition for students, parents and educators.

At the same time, the school committees opted to form a transition team to address the community’s understanding of the unusual transition and to oversee contract negotiations for the retiring and newly hired superintendents.

School committee members approved the proposal last December and announced the succession in January to the two towns.

The extended timeline create an unexpected challenge. The existing balance of responsibilities between the two positions came to an end. District staff also had the odd experience of dealing with an outgoing superintendent and incoming leader working under the same roof. Employees remained respectful and loyal to both of us.

A Transition Model
We believe our transition plan can serve as a model for other districts. The complexity of demands on today’s superintendents leads to isolation in the position, so preparing qualified candidates to fill these important roles requires new diligence.

Although the Dover-Sherborn transition was not a perfect process, there were far more pluses than minuses. School committee members committed to the process. They remained sensitive to the overlapping tenure and respectful of my successor and me. During my first several months in an advisory role, my successor and I have exchanged a few e-mails and talked by phone several times. I’ve remained committed to the success of Dover-Sherborn students, educators and the new superintendent.

Valerie Spriggs retired in July as superintendent of the Dover-Sherborn Public Schools in Dover, Mass.


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