I have fond memories as a principal of when one district superintendent would visit our school and introduce himself to students. He’d ask kids “Do you know what a school superintendent is?” and they’d just stare at him in confusion. He’d try to explain with limited success.
You might think this is specific to elementary students, but the truth is that very few people know much about the role.
In this post, I’ll provide an overview of the school superintendent job. You can also look at some of my other educator role content by checking out:
Table of contents
The School Superintendent Role
A school superintendent is the top administrator in a school district. They are responsible for the smooth operation of the school district, student achievement, and implementing the vision of the district school board.
In business terms, you can think of the superintendent as the CEO (chief executive officer) of the district.
Contrary to what many believe, a superintendent does not have total authority. While the day to day operation of the school district is a superintendent’s responsibility they do not operate without oversight. In fact, a superintendent can be hired and fired more easily than most district employees.
Who Does A Superintendent Report To?
A superintendent is the direct employee of the district School Board of Directors. The school board hires, directs and evaluates the school superintendent.
In the proper relationship, the school board sets the vision and policy for the district and the superintendent implements it. The reality can be more challenging as Boards often try to push their authority into the operation of the district.
The superintendent serves at the pleasure of the Board and can be removed fairly easily, depending on the protections in their contract. Superintendent turnover is significant in districts with challenging community dynamics.
The duties of a superintendent are easily summarized into implementing the vision of the board, overseeing the operation of the school district, and maximizing student achievement. Even that summary sounds challenging, but each of those has dozens (or hundreds) of major components within.
In large districts, the superintendent may have whole departments handling each of these duties. In smaller districts, the superintendent is solely responsible for all of them.
Here is a list of some of the duties of a school superintendent:
- Report frequently to the school board
- Regular communication
- School Board meeting reports
- Individual member management
- Represent the district in the community
- Implement processes for community input
- Prepare regular communication to the community
- Appear regularly at community events
- Community organizations
- School sports
- Advocate politically for the interests of the district
- Maintain relationships with local politicians
- Maintain relationships with state elected officials
- Advocate at the federal level for funding and policies
- Provide information to elected officials as needed
- Oversee the budget process
- Prepare and recommend the annual budget
- Monitor the district’s spending
- Implement reductions when necessary
- Ensure compliance with legal requirements
- State law
- Federal law
- Ensure compliance with district policy
- Supervise district employees
- Hire and evaluate district administrators
- Ensure adequate licensure of all district employees
- Receive and investigate community complaints about district employees
- Labor management
- Implement association contracts (or work agreements)
- Meet with association leaders
- Bargain on behalf of the school board
- Comply with state requirements
- Reporting requirements
- Student data
- Staff data
- Budget reports
- Curriculum attestation
- Reporting requirements
- Emergency management
- Create emergency management plans
- Make decisions about school closures
- Oversee emergency response and recovery
This is a high-level bulleted list. As you can see, the responsibilities are significant and the time and energy they demand will vary by community and current circumstances. It certainly is a daunting list, and one reason I would not want to be a superintendent. Which brings us to…
Is Being a Superintendent Hard?
Yes. I talked to a few superintendents I know and they each independently stated that it was the most challenging job they’d ever had.
The best description was this: “Imagine you have four people standing in a circle around you. One represents the community, the second the Board, the third state oversight, and the fourth all the staff in the district. You’re trying to keep them all happy, but each may randomly attack you at any time – often for things outside your control or that are just rumors. Meanwhile, you’re trying to make sure students are learning. Yes, it’s hard.”
Why Would Anyone Want To Be a Superintendent?
A superintendent can have an incredible impact on a district, community, and students. While the Board makes the highest-level decisions, superintendent leadership impacts every facet of a district. Often the superintendent is invisible to most stakeholders, including educators at the school level.
Yet, if you’ve ever worked in a district with a bad or ineffective superintendent you know well how painful it can be. The opportunity to support thousands of students and staff is what draws the best superintendents to the role.
The superintendency is also the highest paying job in public education. That’s not a good reason to do it, but compensation may outweigh the negatives for some.
How Much Does a School Superintendent Make?
According to this report from the AASA, the school superintendents association, the median salary for superintendents in the 2019-20 school year ranged from $117,500 – 338,700 based on district size. Superintendent salary typically increases as the number of students they oversee increases. This can lead some superintendents to “move up” from smaller districts to larger districts as part of their career ladder.
If you dig into the report, you will find the sadly typical salary disparities based on race and gender. The gap is improving in education, but substantial variance still exists.
There are those who scream about the pay of superintendents as public employees. However, if you judge the role and responsibilities as equivalent to a CEO, some oversee billion dollar enterprises with incredible complexity. I’ll leave that to you to judge.
How to Become a School Superintendent
If you’re really interested in become a superintendent, you’ll want to spend significant time understanding the process. I’ll provide a quick overview for those who are curious what preparation goes into becoming one.
School superintendent requirements vary by state. In most states, you have to hold an education license. However, remember that the school superintendent is hired and directed solely by the local school board. Sometimes, school boards make surprising decisions, especially if they are looking to “shake up” the direction of the district.
Typically, a superintendent will follow an educator path with increasing responsibility. Most start at the school level, working directly with students. The most common starting point is teaching, however I have encountered several superintendents that began as paraeducators and progressed all the way to lead a district.
If you want to be a superintendent, be prepared to work in roles with increasing responsibility and public visibility. You’ll have to meet both the education and licensure standards in each state.
The typical job progression looks like this:
- School level educator (paraeducator, teacher, specialist)
- Entry-level administrator
- Building principal
- District office administrator
In smaller communities, it’s not unusual for the superintendent to be a combination of principal and superintendent.
The education requirements for a superintendent vary by state, but this is a good general model:
- Teaching degree
- Advanced leadership degree
- Doctorate (not always required, but typical for the role)
Most superintendents are career educators who have been in the profession for decades.
The school superintendent is a challenging role with the opportunity to have incredible impact on a community. While the role provides a great deal of authority, this is tempered by board oversight, community pressure, and the complexity of the role.
A superintendent is the highest paid role in public education. It can be both financially rewarding and fulfilling to oversee a district. However, it takes significant work to become a superintendent, and the pressures of the role lead to frequent turnover in many districts.
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