Challenges of first-time rural superintendents

I’m used to reading about the challenges faced by first-time teachers, and I’ve seen several articles about the challenges faced by first-time principals.

The first article I’ve come across about the challenges of first-time rural school superintendents, however, is Cari L. Wrysinski-Guden’s piece at the School Superintendents Association website.

screen capture shows title and publishing info for article about first-time rural superintendents

The article includes four profiles of four rural Wisconsin superintendents.  It’s well worth reading, and it’s actually readable, not a boring piece with 1,000-word paragraphs full of academic jargon.

Wrysinski-Guden’s first experience as a superintendent was in a 600-student school district in central Wisconsin. She did her doctoral dissertation on the roles and challenges that other first-time rural superintendents had.

A sample from Wrysinski-Guden’s article is this quote from Justin Jerson, who was promoted to superintendent from being high school principal:

Many times [school board members] went to school and graduated from high school, so they’re an expert. I’ve tried, over the years, to inform them, but they’ve lived in the rural town for 60 years and they’ve been involved with the schools since age 5, as a student or a parent or now a board member for 20 years. How can an outsider to our district tell me differently?


Questions for school board candidates

One of the most popular posts on this blog is my list of questions for school superintendent candidates.  Because that list was in such demand, I decided to start a list of generic questions that could be asked of potential school board candidates across America.

School boards in America are responsible for setting policy. In effect, a school board tells its superintendent, “This is what we want to see happen in the district.” The board hires a superintendent to turn the board’s vision and goals into reality. The responsibility for the day-to-day management of the school system rests with the superintendent. Typically a school board evaluates the superintendent at least annually.

Two notes:  (1) There’s no significance to the order of questions under different headings.  The numbers are just for easy reference. (2) Twitter hashtag for discussion of school board issues is #boe

Preparation for board service

1. In what ways have you attempted to prepare yourself for the job of a school board member?

2. What information sources do you rely on for news and analysis of education news and education policy?

3. Approximately how many students in the district qualify for the free and reduced lunch programs? What impact do those figures have on the district’s budget and its academic programs?

4. What are two or three technological learning tools you personally use regularly, and what do these technology tools do for you?

5. Describe two or three learning activities you engage in regularly that provide a model of lifelong learning. How do you make people aware of your ongoing learning activities?

6. In every community and organization there are entrenched interests. Describe a situation in which you had to deal with entrenched interests, and explain how you established a positive working relationship.

7. What is your experience with complicated budgets?

8. If you were to be elected to the school board, what do you think you would be able to contribute to the board operation immediately?

9. For boards that are authorized to establish charter schools: What do you know about charter schools? On the whole, do you think charter schools expand educational opportunities for students or reduce them by siphoning off money from the non-charter public schools?

Vision for the district

1. Today’s students are different from students 20 years ago. What are three issues arising from the differences in today’s students that the school board might need to deal with by creating district policy?

2. What are three challenges for which this district must prepare the class of 2024?

3. As you look at the local community, what employment opportunities are available here for which the school ought to be preparing its graduates?

4. We frequently hear that high school graduates must be “college and career ready.” What would distinguish a graduate of this district who was college and career ready from one who was not?

5. Aside from educating children, what, if any, responsibilities do the school board and school district have to the community?

Awareness of the board member’s role

1. When you attend a board meeting, whether it’s the city council or the school board or some other public body, what behaviors do you consider indications that the board is doing a good job?

2. If a parent were to come to you with a concern about a teacher, for example, or a teacher with a concern about an administrator, what would you see your role as a board member to be in resolving that issue?

3. Drawing on what you know about the roles and responsibilities of a board member, if you were elected, what are the first three challenges you’d face and how would you address them?

4. All human beings have some biases as a result of their experiences and personal preferences. What are two or three of your biases that you would need to guard against allowing to affect your judgment on matters before the school board?

5. What do you see as legitimate ways for a school board to support the district’s teacher evaluation process?

6. What criteria would you apply when making decision as a school board member about the best course of action? Please use an example from your personal or business experience to show  how you apply those criteria when making a decision that affects people other than yourself.

7. Schools have all sorts of special programs aimed at achieving a variety of goals and objectives. How do you determine when a program has been successful?

8. What role, if any, do you see school board members playing in advocating for support for education and learning outside the board meetings in the community or beyond the local community?

9. For boards whose members represent geographic areas of the district: If the wishes of the residents you were elected to represent clash with the wishes of the majority of the board members, how do you resolve the conflict?

Awareness of district assets and needs

1. What in your opinion is the single biggest asset of this school district and its single biggest liability?

2. Of the ways currently used by the district to inform the community about academic progress the district is making, which one in your opinion is most the effective and which is the least effective?

3. What, if any, community assets do you think the school is not using to their fullest potential?

4. What demographic and economic trends in the school district do you see as likely to have significant impact on the school’s program and thus its budget, in the next 10-15 years?

School budgetary concerns

1. How would you enlist taxpayer support for school spending or for bond issues, particularly from taxpayers with no children in public schools?

2. What should be the board’s policy with regard to allowing homeschooled children in the district to participate in extracurricular activities ?

3. In cases where parents who live outside the district wish to have their children attend school in this district, should the board charge those parents tuition? If you think tuition should be charged, do you believe their should be any exceptions to the policy?

4. What in your opinion are the three to five most important groups of stakeholders in the school district?

5. What capital needs does the district have right now? How do you think those needs should be addressed?

6. Many student groups within the school population have identifiable support groups within the wider community. It is fairly common for booster groups to claim that one group is getting a portion of discretionary funding that’s disproportionately large in comparison to the number of students involved.  If such a situation were called to your attention, as a board member what action, if any, would you feel would be appropriate for you to take?

7. For school boards that depend on a county or other taxing agency for funding: Since the school board cannot raise revenue for itself, how would you facilitate the process of securing necessary funds for the school district from the county (or other taxing agency)?

Are there questions that should be asked that aren’t on this list? Add them as a comment here or tweet your ideas @LindaAragoni with the hashtag #boe.

Thanks to these folks who suggested topics or resources and prodded me into starting this list: to Teri Pinney , @teripinney, a board candidate and now a school board member;  Jerry Blumengarten, @cybraryman1; Ted Bauer of,  @lmtv; and Michael Josefowicz, @toughLoveforx.   Photo credit: “Passage” uploaded by tripeak

[fixed broken link 2016-01-31]

School board qualifications

On May 15 school board elections will take place in New York State, along with voting on school district budgets. Similar votes will be taking place in school districts across the country. Despite the importance of education and the considerable power wielded by school boards, the qualifications for board membership are surprisingly low.

In order to run for school board seat in New York State, for example, candidates must meet four qualifications:

  • Candidates must be over the age of 18.
  • Candidates must be able to read and write.
  • Candidates must live in the district they wish to represent (districts set the length of time candidates must have lived in the district prior to seeking the board seat.
  • Candidates must be qualified to vote in that district.

In other words, to be elected to a  public school board in the Empire State, candidates are not required to have achieved a specific educational level. They do not need to have ever attended either a public or private school.  There’s nothing that requires board members to have a specific proficiency in reading and writing, nor are they required to read and write English. If candidates say they can read and write, that satisfies the law.

State law prohibits certain people from running for school board. Candidates in New York State:

  • Cannot be employed by the board on which they wish to serve.
  • Cannot live in the same household with a family member who is also a member of the same school board.
  • Cannot simultaneously hold another incompatible public office.
  • Cannot have been removed from a school district office within the previous year

These prohibitions are designed to protect against conflicts of interest, but they offer no buffer against common situations in which:

  • The candidate’s spouse is an employee of the school board.
  • The candidate’s child is an employee of the school board.
  • The candidate’s parents are employees of the school board.
  • The candidate’s siblings are employees of the school board.

The fact that someone has ties to an employee of the school board does not mean that candidate cannot exercise independent judgment. Far from it. It is simply one factor that voters need to consider when evaluating the candidates.

If you want a school board that will represent the best interests of the whole community, you must educate yourself at least to the extent of learning enough about school board candidates to vote intelligently. Some school boards and community groups offer opportunities for the public to meet and ask questions of school board candidates. If you are fortunate enough to live in a community that provides such an opportunity,  seize it. State law offers no protection against the effects of indifference.

Superintendent interview panels meet

This afternoon was the meeting for panelists on teams to interview candidates for the superintendent’s job at Bainbridge-Guilford Central School District.

DCMO BOCES Superintendent William Tammaro began the session by telling us the BG board is interviewing six candidates this week, so we will not have information about the three finalists until next week.

Tammaro also said that he was instructed by the BG board to look for candidates that would come with the intent of staying five to 15 years. He said all six of the people the board is interviewing would come with the expectation of staying five or more years.

Tammaro gave us each packets of information that included a copy of the brochure used to recruit candidates for the job, which, as I reported earlier,  was not available from the school’s website or the BOCES website last week.

The advance memo about the meeting said we’d be given information on questioning techniques. What Tammaro provided was a standard list of questions that are illegal to ask during an interview, which can be downloaded from dozens of places on the web. A couple of people on the panel with me might have been helped by some general suggestions about formulating interview questions.

He said each panel would have “about an hour” to interview candidates. He suggested we leave 10 minutes for a candidate to ask questions. He said he recommended we have 20 questions to fill the rest of the time. All candidates are to be asked the same initial questions, though follow-up questions can vary.

After each candidate interview, each of the five interview panels (teachers, support staff, students, administrative committee, and community members) is to draft an immediate report to the board of education. Although Tammaro did not say so, the report form says the reaction is to  be unanimous. If it is not, a minority report can be attached to the majority report.

Each panel is to present its report in the form of a two-item questionnaire:

  1. What strengths do you believe this candidate has with regard to the Superintendency in Bainbridge-Guilford?
  2. To what extent do you see this candidate “fitting in” to the Superintendent’s position in Bainbridge-Guilford?

The panel of community members is scheduled to meet with candidates from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., and the report must be delivered to the board by 6 p.m. That 30-minute time frame does not permit a particularly thoughtful response, even if the questions were designed to elicit one.

Asking only about a candidate’s strengths strikes me as potentially dangerous.  A candidate may have several strengths that are canceled by serious weaknesses.

Moreover, I’m not sure that “fitting in” is what I want in a school leader. I don’t want someone who is going to make a religion of doing things differently. On the other hand, I don’t want a superintendent to fit in so well she or he disappears in the crowd.

Followers fit in.

People with low expectations fit in.

Superficial thinkers fit in.

Educators who don’t keep on learning fit in.

Administrators who don’t rock the boat fit in.

And folks who bring more than two dozen people to a two-hour meeting to do a handful of tasks that could have been accomplished online in a few minutes fit in best of all.