Extending the Honeymoon

Type: Article
Topics: Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine

September 01, 2023

A productive 100-day plan in this turbulent time for school system leaders should include all the elements of ‘look, listen and learn’

As a superintendent for 37 years and a search consultant for more than two decades, I’ve thought controlling our destiny as leaders was a skill most of us in the field possessed. Decide when the time is right, create a great resume, find a school board that aligns with your beliefs and strengths, call the movers and go. Then, simply do what you have trained for and enjoy prosperity as a superintendent until the next appealing position.

With hundreds of opportunities in school system leadership roles presented each year, all you need to do is stay out of significant trouble, demonstrate a solid body of work and be confident that your current employers will hate to see you go. If only it were that easy!

Today’s reality for superintendents is much different from when I was in my prime. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way many people view public education, and opinions about how education should be delivered are deeply divided. It is disconcerting to see education as a primary battleground for the culture wars that many communities are experiencing.

With recent elections influenced by these issues, many superintendents are contemplating their professional options and personal desires. Many of these leaders hope to land in another school community where they might enjoy the benefit of working with a board of education that values them.

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You’ve Just Been Named Superintendent. Now What?


Corey Willenberg headshot in gray suit and red tieWhen I was offered my superintendent job 12 years ago, I thought to myself, “I got this!” in a most self-satisfied way. I came to the position with a decade of teaching experience, 15 years of administrative experience and a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Southern California. I felt I was prepared for anything.

Reality proved otherwise.

On my first day as superintendent, I received a phone call from my assistant superintendent. She needed some guidance because one of our school buses returning home from a Friday night varsity football game had struck a small horse on the highway. The kids were safe and the bus was operable, but the horse did not make it.

The horse had gotten out of its corral and had run onto a major highway. We developed a game plan for the district’s transportation supervisor to locate the owner of the horse on Monday.

So why do I tell you this story? I quickly discovered as the superintendent that I was where the buck stopped. People expected me to have answers to all of their issues.

A Personal Toolbox

From my experiences as a one-time newbie, I’ve compiled a set of suggestions for those just beginning or soon-to-begin their tenure at the top of the school system to place in their toolbox as they embark on new adventures in leadership.

Print a staff directory list of every employee in your school district with cellphone numbers, addresses and personal e-mail addresses. This comes in handy during an off-hours emergency or if you want to send a sympathy card or thank you note to a staff member.

Have ready a current copy of your district’s safety plan, including the transportation plan. Familiarize yourself with those plans. What are the procedures for evacuation of a school facility? What’s the protocol for active shooters, floods, a school bus accident? I keep it in a binder with my staff directory and board member contacts.

Make your executive assistant the first point of contact in your office. Talk to the assistant about your calendar, when to schedule appointments, when not to schedule appointments, etc. Develop through your assistant a school board meeting calendar that flags items that need to be board approved. I know come every February that my district’s updated safety plan has to receive board approval so it can go up on the district’s website by March 1, a state requirement. Does your assistant have contact information for all of your administrators, supervisors and board members?

Set up a communication plan for your board and your staff. I send an e-mail to all board members every Friday letting them know what is going on in the district. But if there is an incident on Monday, I do not wait until the end of the week to let them know what is going on. You never know what they will hear in the local grocery store, so you want to be in front of potential issues.

Meet your administrative team and supervisors. Begin building a relationship with them early on. Let them know your expectations for them and ask them what they expect from you.

Familiarize yourself with any collective bargaining agreements for employee groups. You can expect your supervisors and administrators to ask you questions about what they can and cannot do when dealing with employees.

Understand what’s in your annual budget. How much is your cash reserve? How much does the board mandate your reserve should be? (My annual budget is $40M, and my board expects a 17 percent reserve.) The reserve allows you to soften the blow of potential budget shortfalls.

Learn how you’re dealing with staffing vacancies. Are they administrative, teaching or classified? If you cannot find a suitable candidate, does your collective bargaining agreement allow you to contract with someone temporarily until you can fill the permanent vacancy?

Find out what role law enforcement plays on your school sites. In what circumstances are they involved? One school in my district is in a county area that is in the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s department, while three schools and the district office are the responsibility of the city police. Get to know the officers. They can help fine-tune your responses to emergencies.

Build a network of people you can call or e-mail. In my county, there are nine other superintendents whom I can contact with questions. We have built relationships and try to assist each other. Join your professional organizations to build a network you can learn from and share with.

Make time for yourself and your family. Administration is a marathon, and you have to be healthy to make sure you can finish the race. Your family is a support system. Make sure you make time for them. They will be with you when the job is not.

Corey Willenberg is superintendent of the Oroville Union High School District in Oroville, Calif. Twitter: @dr_willenberg