March/April 2024

Boards & Superintendents: Setting Your New Superintendent Up for Success 

By Vic Zimmerman
Journal | March/April 2024

So, you have hired a new superintendent for your school district, what happens now? The transition from one superintendent to the next one plays a big part in the success of the new superintendent and the newly created board/superintendent relationship. 

New superintendents are hired for many reasons, the most common of which is the retirement of the current superintendent (60% in 2022), with the second most common reason being that the current superintendent is leaving for a job in another school district (30% in 2022). A small number of superintendent changes occur when a separation agreement is necessary with the school board due to a falling out of some kind. Regardless of the reason for a new superintendent taking over, there are responsibilities for the current superintendent and school board to consider to set up the school district for success by setting forth on a positive transition plan. 

Some school districts in Illinois are able to use the “Superintendent in Waiting” model for replacing a retiring superintendent. This model is possible when the retirement/ leaving date of the outgoing superintendent is known far in advance and the district has the resources to hire a replacement and allow them to work with the current superintendent for a full year prior to taking over the position. In this case the transition has over one year to take place and by the time the new superintendent takes over, they have had many experiences of a new superintendent without the stakes of actually sitting in the official seat. This is an excellent transition plan when a school district can make it happen but is a rarity for most districts. 

Typically, the school district advertises a superintendent vacancy in the fall of the school year prior to hiring a new superintendent to start in the school district on July 1 of the next school year. The transition plan’s structure is driven by who is hired, due to the amount of time needed, availability and needs of the new superintendent. If the school district hired an experienced superintendent, the scope of the transition can be lessened when compared to a school district hiring a brand-new superintendent. 

If the new superintendent is an internal candidate (currently working in the same school district) it should be possible to begin the transition discussions during the last semester of the school year prior to the new superintendent taking over the position. If the new superintendent is an external candidate, then there will be less time available for the transition discussions to take place simply because of the logistics of time when the new superintendent lives and works in a different school district. Regardless of the situation, the outgoing superintendent should take the responsibility of contacting the replacement to set up the transition plan. 

Topics to Discuss During the Transition 
Some of the topics to discuss during the superintendent transition require an extended conver-sation, while others do not. The purpose of these conversations is to inform the new superintendent on the current state of the school district and its practices. 
• School Board Relations 
• Tentative Budget Status 
• District and Board Communications 
• Board Meeting Logistics 
• Board Policy Manual 
• Unit Office Personnel Roles 
• Union Relations and CBA 
• Insurance (Health, Property, Liability, other) 
• Grants Status (State and Federal) 
• School Attorney and Current Issues 
• Auditor and Audit Status 
• Food Services 
• Financial Status 
• Special Education 
• Current Administrators 
• Student Transportation 
• ISBE Reporting Status 
• Monthly Meeting Schedule 
• District Investments 
• Open Positions and Hiring Practices 
• City or County Issues 
• Key Stakeholders in the District/Community 
Once the new superintendent is in the seat, it is their decision on what comes next. Whether the outgoing superintendent can meet weekly with the new superintendent (internal) or needs to schedule a few days with them (external), part of finishing the job is to secure a positive transition. This is helpful for the new superintendent and good for the outgoing superintendent. The outgoing superintendent should also be available for phone calls from the new superintendent as needed, but should be mindful that their role is of support and that they no longer run the school district. 

The school board plays a role during the transition to a new superintendent. Once a selection is made, the school board should create a press release announcement to introduce the new superintendent. It’s a good idea to set up an open house or meet and greet time for the faculty and staff, community members, and parents to meet the new superintendent. The school board should welcome the new superintendent to attend at least some of the school board meetings in their new district in order to get a sense of how the board members and board meetings function. Consideration should be given to allowing input from the new superintendent on any major decisions or issues that the district is or will be facing when the new superintendent starts the job on July 1. 

Board members, as the elected representatives of the community, should invite the new hire to attend Rotary Club, Lions Club, or whatever service organizations are in the community in order that the new superintendent can meet some of the movers and shakers and hit the ground running. 

Traditional new employee onboarding needs to take place as well. If the new superintendent is moving into the school district, school board members can assist with real estate agents and banking contacts. At some point after July 1, the school board and superintendent should have a workshop-style meeting with their IASB Field Services Director to review and consider board norms, communication expectations, board and superintendent roles, board meeting procedures, and district goal-setting. This happens so that everyone is on the same page from the outset. Communication is the key to a successful board/superintendent relationship. The school board employs the superintendent and should set a high benchmark for how it expects new employees to be treated in the school district. 

Regardless of the reason a school district hires a new superintendent, the transition plan matters to the success of the school district going forward. School board members should work with their outgoing superintendent on the transition process to help set up the new superintendent for the greatest chance of success. 

Vic Zimmerman, Ed.D., is an IASB Executive Searches Consultant and an IASA Field Services Director