“Black Monday”: This is the nickname of the Monday after the final regular-season game of the National Football League. It is called Black Monday because this is the day that the teams who did not make the playoffs announce whether or not they are going to retain their head coach, or the head coach announces that he or she is leaving. When the owners decide to let their head coach go, it begins a whirlwind of job openings and recruitments, in what is also known as “U-Haul Season,” of coaches packing up their families and going to different jobs.
Every year, there is also a “U-Haul Season” for public school superintendents. Usually, in December, superintendents begin announcing their retirements, or the district’s board of education notifies a superintendent that his or her contract will not be renewed. Regardless of whether the turnover was voluntary or involuntary, countless hours and resources will be poured into finding a suitable replacement to act as the chief executive officer of the district. School boards must constantly consider how—or whether—to keep their current superintendent from leaving, and superintendents must consider why and whether they should stay.
We wanted to know what factors encourage a superintendent to stay in the job. By analyzing data from the national AASA 2010 State of the Superintendency Study, we were able to identify three factors that are particularly helpful if a board wants to retain its superintendent. The intention of this study was not for a board to eliminate turnover, because sometimes turnover is necessary, if, for example, a superintendent is not meeting expectations set by the board, or the superintendent acts unethically. Instead, we wanted to increase the potential of a school board to retain a superintendent they desire.
Factor One: A Superintendent’s Relationship with the School Board is Vital
First, we want to emphasize that a superintendent’s relationship with the school board is vital. Every single variable we analyzed that was related to a superintendent’s relationship with the board was statistically significant, even when including other variables such as superintendent gender or size of the district. Superintendents who said they were satisfied with their board relationship or who said that this relationship was positive were more likely to stay. Superintendents who viewed school board member behavior as an asset were more likely to stay. Superintendents who had a high-performance rating by the board were more likely to stay. School boards that tended to approve the superintendent’s recommendations had superintendents who were more likely to stay. And finally, superintendents who perceived that the board approved of their decisions were more likely to stay.
Our research echoes previous research from Alsbury (2008) that the relationship between a school board and the superintendent must be strong and positive for a superintendent to stay. We thus recognize that it’s important for the national and state school board associations o continue supporting local school boards via professional development, especially the development of working relationships. Since this was a national survey, it was not possible to pinpoint one state versus the other, and the engagement level of each state board association may look different. However, nationally, local school boards need training and guidance on how to efficiently and effectively govern their school district (Delagardelle, 2008), as the National School Boards Association has consistently emphasized.
Factor Two: Salary and Enrollment Matter
As with any job, superintendents evaluate the costs and benefits of staying in their current position against the perceived value of a position elsewhere (Grissom, 2010). Within this cost-benefit analysis, superintendents not only evaluate their perceived relationship with the school board, but also their salary and other amenities. For example, a superintendent who is shared between two rural districts may choose to take a position with a different district, even though the salary is the same, because they no longer want to be working for two different boards.
Our research found several statistically significant factors related to these costs and benefits. First, a superintendent’s desire for a higher salary and better fringe benefits played a role in whether she wanted to stay or leave a district. This factor is probably not surprising: pay people more, and they will be more likely to stay. However, a second factor may be more of a surprise: the demographic factor of the school district’s size made a difference in whether a superintendent planned to stay or leave. Superintendents in a smaller school district of 300-900 students were more likely to leave within five years, even if their compensation was satisfactory. Yes, the relationship withthe school board is a statistically significant factor in whether a superintendent stays or goes; however, even when a positive relationship exists, the superintendents still analyzed their current salary and the size of the school in relation to whether they wanted to stay or leave adistrict, and decided in favor of moving to a larger district.
Factor 3: Community Culture Matters
The last factor in superintendent retention was the community’s culture. Related to this idea was whether or not the position of the superintendent was viewed as having a positive status in the local community. Also important was the superintendent’s perception of who held power in the community. For example, was the power over important educational decisions shared by the superintendent and the board? Or was the power dispersed broadly among various stakeholders? Superintendents who planned on leaving the district characterized the decision-making power as resting with only a few influential people who did not include themselves nor the board.
Other important factors in a superintendent staying in a district were community variables such as the quality of the athletic program, positive community involvement, and family involvement with students. If a superintendent viewed the community involvement as a minor liability, there was a higher likelihood that the superintendent planned to leave the district.
Implications for School Boards
This study supported the concept that a superintendent’s satisfaction with their position is closely related to factors that school boards can control or influence: the relationship between the superintendent and the board, their compensation, and their community culture. Superintendents will weigh these factors against a job opportunity elsewhere. For example, if a search firm contacts a superintendent about a position in a different district, the superintendent would compare his or her current satisfaction, salary, and quality of life with that of the job opportunity being presented. Satisfaction with salary, fringe benefits, and the size of school were all statistically significant factors in the predictive model of whether a superintendent was going to stay or leave a district.
The relationship between a school board and the superintendent must be strong and positive for a superintendent to stay. To be an effective governing body, local school boards need a clear understanding of what their roles and responsibilities are compared to the roles and responsibilities of the superintendent. They should understand that if a superintendent is not comfortable with the role or responsibility the board is asking the superintendent to operate under, the potential for the superintendent to leave increases.
Overall, it would be wise for school boards and state school board associations to revisit the research found in the Iowa Lighthouse Study (2000). This research outlined eight characteristics of effective school boards. These characteristics for effective boards included:
- Committing to a vision of high expectations for student achievement and quality instruction and defining clear goals toward that vision.
- Sharing strong beliefs and values about what is possible for students and their ability to learn, and of the system and its ability to teach all children at high levels.
- Being driven by student achievement, spending less time on operational issues and more time focused on policies that improve student achievement.
- Having a collaborative relationship with staff and the community, establishing a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals.
- Using data: they embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.
- Aligning and sustaining resources, such as professional development, to meet district goals.
- Leading as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.
Effective school boards participate in team development and training, sometimes with their superintendents, to build shared knowledge, values, and commitment to their improvement efforts.
In a finding supportive of labor market theory, school boards also need to evaluate the compensation of their superintendent. Salary and fringe benefits were both a strong factor in whether or not a superintendent was planning on staying or leaving a district. This salary disparity may become a challenge for smaller school districts that may not be able to afford a competitive salary. Smaller districts also may be at a disadvantage because of the desire for a superintendent to advance their career in a larger school district (Grissom & Mitani, 2016). School districts that cannot afford a competitive salary or who have fewer students will need to market their district on other positive attributes, such as their community’s involvement. By focusing on other factors beyond compensation and student enrollment, a district may be able to recruit and retain a superintendent for a longer time.
This research added to the knowledge of why superintendents choose to stay or leave a school district. Research on superintendent retention and turnover matters because it affects students in the communities the superintendent serves. The three most significant findings regarding variables impacting superintendent retention and turnover included the relationship with the school board, compensation, and community culture. When the national narrative continues to articulate that superintendents churn through school districts, this research provides boards with the knowledge to change that trend. By changing that trend, districts also can combat negative cultures that are counter to the collaboration and commitment to a model of continuous improvement. As the CEO of a school district, the superintendent has an important responsibility to guide the board in making the best educational decisions for the students he or she serves.
Joanne M. Marshall (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former high school teacher and a current associate professor in Educational Leadership, Organizations, and Policy at Iowa State University.
Jesse D. Ulrich (email@example.com) currently serves as the President of Iowa Central Community College. Prior to his appointment, he served as Superintendent of Fort Dodge Community School District, where he provided educational leadership to nearly 4,000 students.
Alsbury, T. L. (2008). The Future of School Board Governance: Relevancy and Revelation. Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Delagardelle, M. L. (2008). The lighthouse inquiry: Examining the role of school board leadership in the improvement of student achievement. In T. L. Alsbury (Ed.), The future of school board governance: Relevancy and revelation (pp. 191-223). Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Grissom, J. A. (2010). The Determinants of Conflict on Governing Boards in Public Organizations: The Case of California School Boards. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 20(3), 601-627. https://doi.org/10.1093/jopart/mup043