How Do You Select a School District Superintendent?

UPDATE: The NYS legislature is closing shop, for a while. The legislature is adjourning on June 2nd with many issues undecided including the extension of mayoral control of NYC schools. If the legislature fails to act the governance structure will default to a seven member board, one member appointed by each borough president and two by the mayor.  The current board has a majority appointed by the mayor and the members can be fired at any time by the appointing authority, the mayor or the borough president. Numerous plans are floating around Albany (See Politico musings here), from extensions of one, two or three years, from reducing the number of mayoral appointees to less than a majority to selecting a blue ribbon task force to recommend another governance model. The last few days of an Albany session, called “the Big Ugly,” totally unrelated bills packaged and passed, deal upon deal (“You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”), BTW, the Roman Senate, the Greek Agora, the Constitutional Convention, every democratic body includes compromises, at times “ugly.”

Another UPDATE: Just in, a mayoral control extension “deal” plus a “sweetener. See here


Only a few weeks after his selection as chancellor David Banks announced the current superintendents, the forty-five school district and high school district leaders will have to reapply for their jobs, de Blasio’s choice as chancellor, Carmen Farina replaced fifteen of the superintendents within months of her selection.

Michael Fullan, was asked in an interview, what are some of the challenges of leading school district improvement in an era of change. Why do people resist change and what do you feel distinguishes the successful organizations that have strong capacities for change?

In The right drivers for whole system success Fullen responded,

I think I first want to put the focus on what we call ‘whole system reform’, which is either the whole district or sometimes even bigger, as in the whole state or providence. It’s not one school at a time; it’s a whole set of schools. The ones that we find are successful have superintendents that have put the focus on the achievement agenda and then, instead of focusing on what I call negative accountability, they focus on capacity building. Capacity building in this instance means developing a teacher’s ability at the school level to work together in a collective capacity to zero in on making the changes, monitoring the results, and making corrections … but it definitely is leadership and focus as it builds capacity.

Banks selected a team of deputy chancellors with limited experience in New York City; only one of his choices had a leadership role in the city,

Desmond Blackburn, the deputy chancellor in charge of the superintendents was the superintendent in Brevard County in Florida, a 75,000 student district.  See linked-in bio here and an interview with Blackburn here.

The superintendent selection process in New York City is embedded in chancellor regulations. and Banks/Blackburn stumbled.  The regulation includes a long, long list of qualifications, requires a written educational philosophy section and recommendations; the “Chancellor’s designee (Blackburn and his team) conduct interviews candidates who they deem “qualified.”

The Chancellor’s designee shall review applications and shall interview qualified candidates from among those who apply in response to the website posting.

A number of the incumbent superintendent applicants were not found “qualified” and were not selected for the next phase and, the roof blew off the process.

In a few instances parents collected signatures on petitions supporting incumbents, an Albany legislative leader slammed Adams/Banks and questioned the renewal of mayoral control. Chalkbeat reports,

Banks announced in March he would make 45 superintendents reapply for their positions, he also promised to make the process of picking new district leaders more inclusive than before. 

That promise seems to have backfired, with parents protesting after some well-liked superintendents were cut before the public had a chance to weigh in on who should lead their districts. 

But following that outcry, the education department is now backtracking: Officials announced Monday that all sitting superintendents have been asked to join a round of public candidate forums, after some initially did not make the cut.

The next step in the process, the consultation step is taking place via online meetings,

CONSULTATION WITH PARENTS AND STAFF Following completion of candidate interviews [by the Chancellor’s designee], the Chancellor’s designee will determine the proposed final candidate or candidates for community superintendent and will ensure that consultation occurs with the district’s Community Education Council and Presidents’ Council, as well as a representative of the UFT, a representative of the CSA, and a representative of DC 37. Such consultation shall include a meeting at which the councils and employee representatives listed above have the opportunity to meet and talk to the proposed final candidate(s) and to provide feedback to the Chancellor’s designee. The Chancellor’s designee shall consider such feedback prior to recommending a candidate for community superintendent to the Chancellor.

The consultees, “provide feedback” and the Chancellor’s Designee “shall consider such feedback prior to recommending a candidate … to the Chancellor.”

Under the era of decentralization (1970-1997) elected school boards chose superintendents, in a few districts the boards worked closely with the community and the staffs, highly effective models, in others, sadly the highest poverty districts, the boards were dominated by local electeds and were patronage pools. The central board intervened numerous times, removed boards and appointed trustees. In 1997 the law was amended and the chancellor had final approval over superintendent selections.

Many Community Education Councils (CEC) believe they should hire the superintendents

I suspect Banks will change many district leaders; a significant question is their new role.  The de Blasio superintendents had limited staffs, targeted data-points in schools, a great deal of meaningless testing, and centrally driven initiatives from Renewal to Thrive to the MAP testing and I-Ready  have had limited impact. The touted increase in high school graduate rates mirror increases across the state and reflect additional pathways and safety nets.  Transfer High Schools  work with overage unaccredited students and are effective models, the Affinity District  (150 schools) have the latitude to bend board regulations and union rules within closely monitored frameworks, on the other hand chronic absenteeism is endemic across the city and post secondary education, Community College completion rates, are distressing.

While the Murdoch print media, the Post and the Daily News lauds mayoral control and criticize opponents who suggest modifications, the improvements in data-points may very well be the result of a closer teacher union/mayoral collaboration.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with superb superintendents: what made them superb?

One conducted a faculty conference in each school engaging the staffs, not preaching, engaging, an opportunity for teachers to speak directly with the superintendent.  Another, in addition to meeting with principals and parents on a monthly basis, met with the school union leaders. 

Teachers felt part of a team.  Participation reduces resistance.

Banks has continued to mention increasing the authority of superintendents, without details, in the waning years of the Bloomberg suzerainty the city was divided into self-selected networks with network leaders (not superintendents), some blossomed, some wilted, Carmen Farina returned to the classic superintendent model with ukases from the aeries fading away.

Symbolism is very important.

It was day 1 of a teacher strike, we were picketing in front of the school, a new principal had been assigned and no one had met him.

A side door opened and a school aide pushed out a cart with a 50-cup coffee urn, she said, “compliments of the principal”.

The strike ended, a few teachers had crossed the picket line and the antipathy was noticeable; one teachers complained to the principal, “send a notice to the faculty, speak to the offenders,” the principal spoke to the teacher, “I understand your discomfort, it’s an uncomfortable situation, I’ll be glad to facilitate your transfer to another school.”

The staff and the principal had a close working relationship.

Superintendents are the link between the Mayor-Chancellor and the classroom teachers; they convey the message down the ladder and hopefully up the ladder. Over the twenty years of mayoral control, with a few exceptions, superintendents have been anonymous; they saluted and carried out the latest “new thing,” in many schools MAP testing is going on this week, in the last week in May. A useful exercise?

I worked with a network leader, on a staff development day he brought the entire network to a school, a buffet breakfast with the school band playing, stepped on the stage in the auditorium, talked about change, not being afraid to fail, told the audience he enjoyed writings songs, picked up a guitar and sang his newest song.  A superintendent willing to fail … front of hundreds of teachers.

He was actually pretty good.

One response to “How Do You Select a School District Superintendent?

  1. Pingback: Repairing a Leviathan in Flight: Rebuilding a School System | Ed In The Apple

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s