District Administration's 5th Annual Salary Survey

District Administration's 5th Annual Salary Survey

Six ways (other than increasing test scores) superintendents keep their positions and boost their salaries.

In the words of Kenneth Eastwood, the superintendent job is getting tougher and tougher. It's not just about improving student performance. Today's superintendents must also be financial geniuses and savvy politicians. Even worse, these types of skills are not ones you can get from a book or a class. "Most administrative preparatory programs don't deal with any of this," says Eastwood, superintendent of the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, N.Y. "How do you act? How do you massage people and bring them together for a consensus? It's not necessarily about strategy or skill."

What Eastwood is describing are the traits that may also help with salary negotiation. In these days of nonstop accountability, a well-liked superintendent with strong community ties can weather a bad situation and may even hold onto his or her job when times get tough. Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, agrees. "No question about it," says Houston. He says superintendents need to reach out to their communities and build a network of support around families and children. Houston says by doing that, they build a support base that will remain loyal. "The people who feel disconnected can easily become critics," warns Houston.

So, how can superintendents foster the right relationships and make themselves known as a person who cares? One way is by understanding that their role has changed from being a manager to being a conductor, says Houston. "You need to understand human interaction and figure out how to get your team using its talents to work together." To get other answers to the thousand-dollar question, we spoke with several school leaders who offered their suggestions.

#1 Show your face

In the words of Kenneth Eastwood, the superintendent job is getting tougher and tougher. It's not just about improving student performance. Today's superintendents must also be financial geniuses and savvy politicians. Even worse, these types of skills are not ones you can get from a book or a class. "Most administrative preparatory programs don't deal with any of this," says Eastwood, superintendent of the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, N.Y. "How do you act? How do you massage people and bring them together for a consensus? It's not necessarily about strategy or skill."

What Eastwood is describing are the traits that may also help with salary negotiation. In these days of nonstop accountability, a well-liked superintendent with strong community ties can weather a bad situation and may even hold onto his or her job when times get tough. Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, agrees. "No question about it," says Houston. He says superintendents need to reach out to their communities and build a network of support around families and children. Houston says by doing that, they build a support base that will remain loyal. "The people who feel disconnected can easily become critics," warns Houston.

So, how can superintendents foster the right relationships and make themselves known as a person who cares? One way is by understanding that their role has changed from being a manager to being a conductor, says Houston. "You need to understand human interaction and figure out how to get your team using its talents to work together." To get other answers to the thousand-dollar question, we spoke with several school leaders who offered their suggestions.

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"I am not a runner," says William J. Mathis, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Vt., "but a few Saturdays ago I participated in a local school's 10K race." For Mathis, the event was not about winning or the exercise but about showing solidarity for the cause. The victory is meeting new people, seeing old friends and being a part of the local fabric. "Schools are the very definition of community," says Mathis. He knows that the after-hours and weekend gatherings are where you get the chance to interact with people you may never otherwise get to see. He says a superintendent absolutely has to do these kinds of things.

Visibility is important, agrees Walter Warfield, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, but he adds that it must be the right kind of visibility. "I never golfed when I was a superintendent because if you went out on one afternoon a month, you'd be seen by 100 people and the perception would be that you'd been out golfing 100 times."

Warfield, who has been in school administration since 1973, suggests being strategic in your scheduling. For example, he used to visit buildings at bus time and, instead of meeting with principals in their offices, he'd chat with them on the sidewalk. "You want a big bang for your time out," he says. "With just one visit, you're seen by 100 parents; you've visited their school 100 times." Another Warfield trick is to show up before a Friday-night football or basketball game starts, leave in the first quarter and head to another school by halftime. "People would think I was always at games," recalls the man who'd be home by the third quarter.

Of course, being seen can mean different things in different locations. "In a small district, you're constantly on display--people will tell you when you last cut your grass and what color shorts you wore," says Warfield. He says people who aren't cognizant of the job's demands, specifically those beyond the 9-5, are going to get into trouble. "I won't tell people to join the Lions Club or the Elks; you have to be yourself," he says. "But you have to be yourself in the context of knowing that your job is 24/7."

#2 Choose the right battle

Over time, a superintendent learns which violations are harmful and which ones are not. Through experience, he or she discovers when to be quiet, when to listen, when to use humor and, most important, to trust his or her own instincts.

Before deciding to challenge a violation, you must figure out if the violation will cause any harm; try and see it through the eyes of your community. Is the fight worth it? Ask advice from colleagues; someone else may bring a unique perspective to the problem. Last, consider the big picture: How will this affect students?

"A lot of this is experience," says Rutland's Mathis. "One tries to be the perfect Zen master but you never are; you're human and have some degree of emotion."

Mathis tells of a Fundamentalist church that wanted to use one of his schools to distribute information. He says the members were very intense. "I went into meetings and watched the eyes as they got more and more narrow. These are the times you can't argue or even debate; a sensible debate isn't possible. You just watch the show and monitor yourself to make sure you keep a calm demeanor."

In these types of situations, Mathis suggests keeping calm by remembering that their strong emotions are not your emotions. "You're responsible for taking an action," he says, "but you're not always responsible for the way others react to it."

#3 Befriend the board

For a board and superintendent to get along well, a superintendent must learn when to make a decision on his or her own and when to involve others. "Whether it's a huge city or the smallest district, the essence of success is board-superintendent relations," says Warfield. "People don't want to be involved if they expect you to make a decision and vice versa." It takes time to get a feel for when to involve staff and community. But Warfield says that one way to work toward this is to have the board do good things and feel good about doing them.

#4 From your lips to ...

Good leaders know that they must control the message, especially since everyone relies on the superintendent as the source of information about how the schools are doing. An administrator who only talks with the community about annual student assessment scores is asking for trouble. It's a lot wiser to report on everything relating to student performance and academic achievement, including new teachers, attendance and extracurricular participation.

"Sometimes I'll be at a ball game and hear about something that happened from the community before I hear from my office," says Milt Dougherty, head of the Little River Schools in Kansas. When communication happens in real time, there's a chance that a lot of the information is inaccurate. Earlier this year, Dougherty's teachers told him that they needed more time for shared planning. After the Board approved it, he implemented a one-hour late start for students on Wednesdays. Even though he put something in the local paper explaining the late start, Dougherty says he heard through the grapevine that people were saying that teachers want to sleep in on Wednesdays. "That's my fault," he says. "We have not done a good job of communicating."

Barbara Grohe, a 26-year superintendent, is at the Kent School District in Washington. She's a big believer in handing out the material you want others to have. "When you step into a public position, it's a guarantee that people are going to talk about you," she says. "Help them tell the stories that tell who you are. Disclose parts of what you stand for and what's important to you in the stories you tell."

Stu Schnur, a 15-year superintendent who's been with New Jersey's Montgomery Township School District for the last five years, was disappointed in his district's recent budget defeat. However, rather than hide behind his desk, the next morning Schnur paid a visit to every school. "I told my staff not to worry about their jobs and that we'd find a way to get through," says the man who still gives a speech at all eight of the district's back-to-school nights. He understands that outreach is a key to maintaining support. "Whenever I'm speaking publicly, I remind people about what we're doing and that we are here for the kids."

#5 Keep your ears open

Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer, who has been with the Tucson Unified School District since 1970 (as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent before becoming superintendent in 2004), says listening to others is the best way to build trust. Even if you don't follow their advice, it's essential that they know they've been heard. When Pfeuffer, who retired as assistant superintendent in 2002, was asked to become interim superintendent two years later, one of his first acts was to declare an open-door policy. "I probably get 150 e-mails a day," he says. Even more telling, he says that several staffers, even some who've been with the district for 20 years, have told him it's their first time in his office.

Pfeuffer recalls that when he first returned at the end of April, he made statements like, "It really is interesting to be in an interim position because there's a sense of freedom in knowing you won't be here that long." One of his senior administrators approached him in August, just before school opened, and said, "I would advise you to not stress the idea that you're interim. People want to feel there's continuity; they don't want to feel that you're going to be here for just a little while." For Pfeuffer, that moment was illuminating. It made him aware of how others perceived his words.

Grohe also says you must create a climate of approachability. "Give people lots of opportunities to communicate informally with you if you want to know what they are really concerned about." One way she makes herself accessible is by doing unannounced building visits. "It doesn't bother me if the principal is busy and can't see me. I just walk around, talk to people and observe what's happening." She insists that people will share information informally in these types of visits, at the grocery store or at a PTA meeting--as long as you show up early when they're milling about.

Several superintendents warn that if you make it clear you only want to hear good news, then that's all you'll hear. Grohe tells her staff she'll never find them guilty of telling her too much and expects everyone, particularly her highest-level administrators, to be savvy enough to keep her in the loop. "Before I walk into a board meeting, I know which issues will be on the table," she says. "I encourage my staff to keep their eyes and ears open."

#6 Wear others' shoes

When one of his building principals at his former district was out for a week-and-a-half, Eastwood decided to sit in as principal instead of hiring a substitute. "I remember distinctly that it caused a significant and very positive response. People saw that I was concerned about the kids." For Eastwood, the experience was about supporting his staff, meeting children and reading to them in classes. He says the experience brought a couple of positive results: He was recharged from being around the kids and teachers and people learned that he isn't an "ivory tower kind of person."

If you can make sure of only one thing in your years as a superintendent, try to make people understand the decisions you make. There will always be renegades who break loose, but if have open discussions about your decisions, your administrative staff and board members will support you. "There is more of an art form to administration than most people realize," says Mathis. "A superintendent must know when to speak, when to be quiet, when to listen, when to find humor in your own silliness and how to keep a calm perspective. Likewise, some skill in dealing with bureaucracies and how they function is essential." DA


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