Strong foundation spelled out for Norwalk superintendent search

By Susan Wallerstein, Ph.D.

NORWALK, Conn. – Several weeks ago the Norwalk Board of Education appointed a committee, including representative community members, to assist with the superintendent search.  Recently the professional search firm hired by the BOE launched an online survey which gives everyone a chance to weigh in about the 10 most important superintendent characteristics. As a long-term “district in need of improvement,” the stakes are particularly high both for the board’s selection process and for the person they choose as our next superintendent.  History suggests the board should be looking for an experienced change-agent. Since some board members may not continue after the November 2013 elections, laying a strong foundation for success during the selection process can help reduce the ways politics and other distractions may undermine a new leader’s effectiveness. Here are a few lessons learned from my experience:

  • Engaging the community in the search is necessary but not enough.  Frankly, the list of top 10 desirable superintendent characteristics doesn’t differ much from any one district to another.  That said, of course it’s important for people to believe they have a voice and for board members to both listen and hear. 
  • Board members are responsible for hiring the superintendent and making a commitment to that person’s success. The board must show its confidence in the new superintendent through actions and words, both public and private.  This sends a powerful message throughout the community that it is not “business as usual.”
  • There ARE highly qualified candidates interested in coming to Norwalk. These people may have non-traditional career paths and different educational backgrounds and degrees. What they will have in common is a passion for public education and the ability to back up their experience with proof. (Frankly, there’s not much on the PROACT list of superintendent characteristics that speaks to accountability or transparency.)
  • Experienced leaders do their homework and ask lots of questions.  They will want to know the specific challenges that need to be dealt with to transform a system of schools in need of improvement into a high performing school system.  Among other things they will be interested in the budget: Is the proposed 2013-14 budget a realistic starting point for multi-year planning? Or does it reflect a one-year salary freeze coupled with the shift of some ongoing operating costs (Common Core curriculum) to the capital budget? I have seen many outstanding, experienced superintendents from other states flounder if they haven’t done their homework about how things have worked historically in Connecticut.
  • Excellent leaders insist on being evaluated. The best will spell out the terms and conditions required for them to be successful. They will ask whether the board is ready to let the superintendent lead and what board members’ views are about governance vs. management. The confident, enlightened ones may even suggest tying their performance to compensation! These candidates know that if the board and the superintendent aren’t on the same page about where the district needs to go and what it will take to get there (this is not about money), it’s unlikely we’ll ever get there.
  • Outsiders thinking about applying want to know if there is a favored internal candidate.  Unless they believe the school system is open and honest about the search process, many will decline to apply. Many area districts make it clear up front whether an acting or interim superintendent may be a candidate for a permanent position.  Of course this can change but it’s always better to start with all the cards on the table.

Susan O. Wallerstein, Ph.D.


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