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Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 10

 

Realizing When It's Time to Move On

BY JIM BUCKHEIT

Board-Savvy

Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. Kenny Rogers’ hit song “The Gambler” describes a down-on-his-luck poker player giving advice about life based on his own hard-earned experience.

You’ve got to know when to walk away and when to run.

The simple message applies to much in life, including knowing as a superintendent when to move on from one’s current post.

Mass Departures
One of the most difficult yet essential services provided by our professional association and others, including AASA, is support for members facing the threat of an unanticipated departure. We’ve witnessed an unprecedented number in Pennsylvania.

In the 12 months between April 2013 and April 2014, we assisted 42 superintendents who were forced to resign, who faced nonrenewal of their contract, who entered into an early retirement settlement or who faced a serious job threat from their school board. We helped another 43 with substantive employment-related issues that did not result in a job separation.

The first thing a superintendent considers upon realizing something is amiss is the need for legal help. But in the early stages it is often not a legal problem, rather a relationship or communication breakdown with one or more board member, a district staffer or community members. These problems, if tackled early, can be resolved.

A Sounding Board
A distressed superintendent needs a sympathetic ear and objective sounding board where confidentiality is maintained — someone from outside his or her immediate circle with whom to share experiences.

We can group support seekers in two camps. First are those who call when they first sense something is wrong, even though no formal action is apparent. Obviously, the sooner you extinguish smoldering kindling, the more likely you will prevent a raging fire. Second are those who wait until the board has acted or is about to initiate a formal action, perhaps initiating an investigation, convening a hearing for suspension or filing formal charges.

In Thriving as a Superintendent: How to Recognize and Survive an Unanticipated Departure, co-authors Thomas Evert and Amy Van Deuren interview 22 superintendents who departed prematurely. The authors discover subjects’ blind spots relating to their ability to identify issues around their own effectiveness at the top of the hierarchy in a large, complex organization.

It is a natural inclination to believe the root problem, instead, may be some district program, policy, troubled staff member or external force that when addressed can fix the situation. But like a troubled marriage, by the time the unsuspecting member realizes a problem exists, the majority of the board has already decided it is time for the CEO to move on.

Painful Acceptance
Convincing superintendents of this reality, particularly those with strong ties to the community, is painful. Then my conversation with them becomes one of personal objectives. Is it to hold on to their position as long as possible? Get out as soon as possible? Preserve their reputation at all cost? Maximize financial compensation? Or battle it out to the bitter end?

Superintendents early in their careers with a young family are more likely to want to hold on as long as possible and preserve their reputation to quickly find employment elsewhere. Career veterans may want to push for fair compensation and walk into retirement.

The objective may be dictated by behavior of the board and its solicitor. While most boards seek an amicable departure, some, for whatever reason, seek to tarnish the image and reputation of the superintendent. They might load gun barrels full of charges, ready to pull the trigger, unless the superintendent resigns immediately without fair compensation.

With new requirements for superintendent evaluation going into place in our state, it remains to be seen if the latter trend will continue. Additional transparency on the board-superintendent employment relationship hopefully will lead to fewer unjustified buyouts and terminations in the future.

Jim Buckheit is executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators in Harrisburg, Pa. E-mail: jbuckheit@pasa-net.org. Twitter: @jbuckheit. He adapted this from a column in the PASA Flyer.

 

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