School superintendent qualifications

Recently, there has been acrimonious debate regarding the hiring of Branden Durst as superintendent of West Bonner School District. I do not personally know Mr. Durst, but I am very familiar with the essential qualifications necessary to serving as an effective K-12 school Superintendent.

I recognize that finding the right superintendent is the most important function of a school board. Good superintendents with experience are very hard to find as the job is one of the most difficult education positions imaginable.

First and foremost, the superintendent must possess multiyear classroom teaching experience. There is simply no substitute for having firsthand knowledge of the curriculum, effective lesson design, classroom time management, appropriately addressing student misbehavior, and child pedagogical development.

Without classroom experience, how could a superintendent be taken seriously by other educators without the requisite professional background knowledge?

A superintendent must know how to work closely with a local governing school board who often have widely differing views regarding how best to educate children. Boards are regularly split in their educational and political viewpoints. How a Superintendent manages these significant board differences will often determine the success of their district, not to mention the longevity of their career in that community.

A superintendent must be extremely knowledgeable regarding educational law (personnel, collective bargaining, budgeting, transportation, food services, student discipline to name a few) including the very demanding and detailed federal laws pertaining to special needs populations.

Also, a superintendent must be very familiar with state board policies, state department regulations, and their own local school board policies. This vast legal knowledge does not just magically occur, it requires a prodigious amount of time and effort with continuous diligent updating.

Mastering and managing the intricacies of the school budget with a maze of federal and state regulations thrown in the mix by itself is a gargantuan task. A poorly managed budget is devastating to district employees and to the community as the school district is often the county’s largest employer.

Due to aging statewide K-12 school facilities a superintendent will most likely be faced with the difficult decision to go to the local taxpayers for a bond or levy. Being familiar with student growth patterns, architectural designs, facility – construction cost projections, bond payments, bond or levy laws and legal documentation is a time consuming and daunting task.

A superintendent must be able to smoothly address competing parental and educator concerns. Making exceptions or favoring one over another due to personal political views is a recipe for disaster.

Frequently, a superintendent must restrain their personal political views in order to not offend their patrons and subsequently polarize a community. Unlike the campaign trail, as superintendent, you can’t make empty promises, you must stay focused on the primary concern of students, their physical, mental, emotional wellbeing and successful learning and not politics.

As superintendent you must love and accept every child, regardless of race, immigration status, religion, ethnicity, English language ability, socio-economic status, handicapping condition, gender, or sexual orientation. Every child in the district is your first and foremost concern always.

In regards to the superintendent contract, it needs to be a standard one. As I was commencing my work as superintendent, I was given sage advice by a seasoned superintendent veteran when he said to me, “Geoff, you never want to drive a Cadillac in a pickup truck community. Never let your contract be a lightning rod. Stay in the salary mainstream.”

That was incredibly good advice which remained with me throughout my career.

As superintendent you wear many hats: Chief Educator, Chief Academic and Executive Officer, Budget Supervisor / Facilitator, Community Leader, District Spokesperson, Bond Spokesperson, Board Spokesperson, Chief Student Advocate, and all too often Community Spear Catcher.

All this and more are what someone signs up for when they seek the Superintendent position. I wish the West Bonner School District well in their decision making.

Geoff Thomas

Geoff Thomas

Geoff Thomas is the former superintendent of the Madison School District and was a member of the governor's Task Force for Improving Education. He now serves as an assistant professor at Idaho State University.

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