A Super Superintendent? Not Really

By Chris Lee Nicastro/School Administrator, September 2015

In 2009, I left the best job in education.  I had everything superintendents dream about — a supportive school board; a team of bright, energetic colleagues; a hard-working group of teachers and principals who were getting results in a high-minority, high-poverty school district; and a community that repeatedly approved tax increases for operations and capital projects. One staff member described it as “Camelot.”

I had just been recognized by my colleagues as superintendent of the year in Missouri. I had received a number of local, state and national awards for leadership, for advancing the cause of women and minority children and for community service. Most important, I loved my job.

A Natural Move

So why leave such an ideal set of circumstances? Surely no one in our business takes a leadership position without a fair dose of ego. Every time we put ourselves out there for career advancement or for a new and “better” job, it’s at least partially due to our belief that we can do it better than anyone else. I’m no exception.

And, like most of my colleagues, I saw the state education commissioner position as a sort of “super superintendent.” I saw the job as professional advancement, a natural progression for a successful superintendent and a chance to make a positive difference for many more kids. It was an exciting challenge.

So, after serving 5½ years as a chief state school officer, I can tell you this: I was right ... and I was wrong.

Loss of Control

As a district superintendent, you control your annual budget. Funds can be allocated, moved or eliminated based on the needs and priorities determined largely by the superintendent. And, in most school districts, you can raise money. Proposing and passing tax increases, while not easy, is a tool superintendents can and do use.

As state commissioner, I had little influence and no control over funding. The fact is, the annual budget could have little relationship to the needs of schools, and no relationship to the needs of the state education department. As necessary, individual line items or portions thereof could be withheld. And I couldn’t run a tax levy.

Another significant contrast is communication. In a district, you have a defined community. Even if your school district has multiple municipalities and a diverse population, you find sharing information relatively easy because most community members share some common experience.

As commissioner, the populations I served were starkly different. Missouri has large cities, small cities, suburban areas and isolated rural areas. Political and social lines are drawn around geography, socio-economic status, race, urban-rural, farming and industry. Values, experience and priorities differ drastically from one area to another.

Communicating with these various groups as a state commissioner meant what might be understood and appreciated in one place could be the source of violent disagreement and conflict in another. I was the “city girl,” a perception that made interaction tough with most of the state.

A third major difference between the two jobs is summed up in one word: bureaucracy. As someone who worked as a superintendent in two districts over 15 years, I found a distinct increase in the levels of bureaucracy between a district with 7,500 kids and one with 20,000. Both pale in comparison to a state system serving over 900,000! Even the simplest task involved forms and procedures, rules and policies, approvals and authorizations — usually at both the state and federal levels. Getting anything actually done was a monumental task. I longed for closure ... on anything.

What Counts

What I learned was that the jobs are very different. Being the chief state school officer is not a “super superintendent” job. In fact, I think experience as a superintendent might even be a liability.

Make no mistake, being a state commissioner had its rewards. During my tenure, we raised expectations, established systems for supporting schools, improved the use of technology and created a nationally recognized system for the preparation and evaluation of educators. With the leadership of an amazing state board of education, we took a strong stand against failing schools. We demanded quality schools for every child.

In the end, whether we are superintendents, chief state school officers or teachers, the only thing that matters is that each of us in education makes a positive contribution, that in some small way kids are better off because we served. Time will tell.

Chris Nicastro, who retired last December as Missouri commissioner of education, is consulting for the Council of Chief State School Officers. She lives in St. Louis, Mo. E-mail: Twitter: @LeeNicastro