Interims leading courageously in unparalleled times

At any time, about 22 percent of the nation's school districts are headed by interim or acting superintendents.
Leonard D. Fitts is the interim superintendent of the Moorestown School District in Moorestown, New Jersey
Leonard D. Fitts is the interim superintendent of the Moorestown School District in Moorestown, New Jersey

School districts are losing their superintendents at an alarming rate. What is more daunting is the shortage of available school leaders to replace the rapidly departing superintendents.

At any time, about 22 percent of the nation’s school districts are headed by interim or acting superintendents, rather than permanent ones, according to the American Association of School Administrators.

The shortage of leadership for the schools adds an additional burden to school boards that are dealing with other urgent issues: tight budgets, student and staff safety and student academic achievement. In their efforts to continue the mission, vision and continued progress of the district, they have sought relief by hiring interims.

An interim superintendent is a person, often a retired superintendent, who provides leadership for a district for a short period of time, usually no longer than two years. Some states put limits on interim tenures.

During this time, the board is looking for a permanent leader, and it is going through the process of recruiting, interviewing, and negotiating a contract.

A popular notion is that an interim is a placeholder and that while he or she sits in the superintendent’s chair, the interim usually doesn’t act or behave like a “real” school superintendent. The typical interim school superintendent, goes the myth, spends a quiet period minding the store until a new superintendent arrives. Interim school superintendents often lack the prestige, power, and time to accomplish much. They act as “caretakers” to maintain business as usual.

These notions could not be more wrong. Any interim superintendent worth having is capable of making tough decisions and providing real leadership that steers a district toward its academic and fiscal goals. School boards should expect no less from any interim they employ.

Advantages of an interim

The primary purpose of using an interim is to assist the district in maintaining a smooth transition to a new permanent superintendent. The interim superintendent often acts as a breakwater between the previous administration and the future one.

Often, the interim is able to execute change more easily than a person currently employed in the district because he or she doesn’t necessarily have a history-for better or worse-with different district constituencies.

Interim superintendents have proven their usefulness in a variety of settings. Successfully completed assignments have included:

  • Reviewing, assessing and refocusing the district
  • Restructuring the senior management team
  • Streamlining and stabilizing the purchasing process
  • Oversee the performance management system for student, administrators and staff
  • Re-establish and maintain liaison with community groups
  • Manage the pandemic related impacts to the district and strategically plan for the full re-entry of students and staff
  • Identify measureable trigger points as to when protocols might change and communicate the plan
  • Continually monitor the effects of the pandemic and evaluate the educational, emotional and operational impacts of the pandemic
  • Promote communication and awareness among internal and external stakeholders to create a culture of collaboration and connectedness
  • Build relationships with stakeholders that can continue one the new superintendent begins
  • Continue the advancement of equity throughout the district
  • Support ongoing district-wide efforts to enhance a supportive, inclusive and positive culture
  • Provide the new superintendent with an assessment of the district and identify areas of weakness where they have the opportunity to improve upon
  • Provide support and guidance to the new superintendent for a smooth transition
  • Mentoring central office staff and enhancing skills with an effective evaluation process to build morale and establish collaborative relationships
  • Addressing the dropout rate by introducing promising best practices
  • Strengthening accountability measures

Good interim school superintendents are a rare breed of individuals. They are poised to assist a district for change and growth. They can deliver results in a wide variety of scenarios because of their extensive experience.

Good interims have the ability to listen attentively and assimilate information from various constituents, teachers, administrators, parents, citizens and others. They have ability to earn the respect of the board of education and central office staff quickly. Above all, they have the courage to identify targets. They focus on setting and establishing priorities. They accept responsibility and accountability for an issue until it has been completely addressed. They are most effective for managing school districts in turbulent times.

And, like a good guest, they know when and how to leave their post. At the conclusion of the contract period, interims prepare for a quick and controlled transition. They compile data and provide information for the arriving superintendent and quietly remove the “INTERIM” desk sign.

I have a great deal of experience in this position: I am currently an interim superintendent in the Moorestown School District, one year in Mahwah School District, one year in Burlington City School District, two years in Glassboro School District, two years in Camden City School District, two years in Pleasantville School District, one year in Coatesville Area School District, six months in Willingboro School District, and one year as interim head of school of Bishop Eustace Preparatory School, Inc. Catholic Pallottine Fathers and Brothers. Here are answers to some of the questions I am frequently asked about this topic:

What should a board look for?

The board should seek someone who is student centered, and who has demonstrated effective communication skills and strong collaborative and visionary skills. This person should have unquestioned integrity and experience. He or she should have demonstrated success in a diverse community and school district, and have excellent organizational and fiscal management skills.

A good interim also is familiar with research-based instructional strategies to challenge and engage students. When seriously considering candidates, boards need to make sure the interim has demonstrated the ability to deal directly and fairly with everyone, be accessible and open-minded when making decisions, and to develop positive working relationships with many constituent groups. The interim should also indicate a willingness to be highly visible in the school and community. Successful experience as a superintendent or a district level administrator in a school district of similar size is also desirable.

Is there an interview process?

Yes, there should be a modified process. Boards should advertise the position, establish the criteria, review applications, hold interviews, and complete a reference check on the finalist before hiring.

How long should an interim serve?

Most interims serve at least six months. New Jersey’s limit is 24 months.

Should an interim make aggressive decisions?

Yes, the Board should grant the authority for an interim to function that way.

Should the interim have specific goals?

Yes. The goals should be simple, clear, and attainable. A temporary superintendent needs to be an educational leader. However, it would be inappropriate for an interim to impose a new mission and vision for the school district.

Is the title “interim” appropriate?

Yes. Districts are evolving and changing; they are not the place for a caretaker. It is necessary to keep these institutions moving forward.

What difficult decision have you made as an interim?

I’ve had to make budget cuts and enact layoffs. It wasn’t easy but we analyzed data and determined what staff and programs should be reduced so as to have the least impact on the mission of the school. I’ve had to reassign staff, principals, teachers and others to improve efficiency. I’ve had to re-focus the district to improve instruction through curriculum realignment, improved evaluations and focused professional development of staff, among other strategies.

I’ve also had to investigate issues of financial mismanagement, dysfunctional behavior, and theft of materials and supplies. The decision was to take appropriate action to correct the problem and also to prevent future occurrences.

I’ve also had to prepare and present budgets that made improvements to a facility to prevent continued deterioration of buildings. We successfully made our case to the community and our budget passed.

How can a board make an interim effective and productive?

All parties should bring a positive attitude of working together for the good of the district. Both the board and interim should spend time getting to know each other. The board should expect the interim to fully operate the school and all educational programs. It also needs to provide the interim with full administrative authority and support to properly carry out his or her duties while holding him or her responsible for acceptable results.

All complaints and criticisms of the district and requests that come to board members should be referred to the interim. Meanwhile, the interim should keep the  board informed about school operations, problems, and opportunities.

Future outlook

School districts across the country started this school year with an increased number of interim school superintendents. The necessity for districts to use interims have been driven by several factors: a competitive market for superintendents, retirements, and reduction in compensation. The superintendent’s job has become harder, including the necessity to build relationships with parents, families, and citizens and to raise and sustain student achievement.  Superintendent churn in many areas adds to the difficulty.

A school district cannot afford to be without a mature, experienced problem solver to address the issues, even for a short time. This period of time demands proven practitioners with specific hands­ on experience and a successful track record to address the issues confronting districts.

Ideally, interim superintendents are mature and experienced problem-solvers with a track record of success in their profession. They have demonstrated ability and skills in orchestrating excellence; in educational leadership with broad knowledge.

It’s often said that the most important thing that a  board  will ever do is choose a superintendent. Choosing the right interim superintendent and working closely with that person to put his or her talents to use will produce the kind of top-notch performance that a board should expect from whoever is sitting in the superintendent’s chair-even temporarily.

Leonard D. Fitts (drleonordm@aol.com} is the interim superintendent of the Moorestown School District in Moorestown, New Jersey.

Most Popular