Tips for what comes after choosing a superintendent
Kentucky School Advocate
By Jennifer Wohlleb
After going through the steps of putting together a search committee, surveying the community, wading through myriad applications, and conducting interviews, school board members can sit back and breathe a sigh of relief now that they have decided who is going to lead the school district. The hard work is done.
Not so fast.
There’s still the matter of the superintendent’s contract to be settled. And while generally straightforward, contract negotiations can set the tone for future board-team relationships and communication.
KSBA Associate Executive Director David Baird, a former superintendent himself, said in Kentucky, unlike a number of other states, the school board hires only the superintendent. The other district employees are then hired by the superintendent or others in the district, and their salaries and benefits are subject to schedules and other proscribed protocols.
“So when you bring in the superintendent, you essentially start with somewhat of an open book,” he said. “The board will have to establish the salary for the superintendent; the term of the contract, which can be between one and four years; the number of days in the contract, which is almost always going to be the standard 240 days; and the process of evaluation of the superintendent, which is statutorily required in Kentucky. And then there are other requirements that go into the contract, such as retirement benefits, which are statutorily established, health insurance and sick leave. All of those things are pretty much what shall be in the contract.”
Once those things are established, the board and superintendent then can negotiate for those things that may be added.
“The board generally will negotiate with the superintendent for things such as reimbursement of expenses incurred in performance of the job,” Baird said. “Does the superintendent get reimbursed for mileage and gas, or does the superintendent get a board-owned vehicle to use? Will the board provide such tools as a cellphone, a computer, and in this day and time, a tablet? Where and what will the superintendent be allowed to do in professional development areas that the board will pay for? Will they be allowed to attend the National School Boards Association conference or the American Association of School Administrators’ convention, or other professional development opportunities at the choosing of the superintendent?”
Mike Oder, who works with KSBA’s Superintendent Search Service and is a retired superintendent, said the main sticking points are usually extra benefits, such as KTRS contribution, health insurance, life insurance and annuities.
“Boards need to decide in advance how far they are willing to go to provide extra benefits,” he said.
Baird said the contract should also specify how extensions and pay increases will be handled.
“Is that part of a standard schedule or is it something that is brought up and discussed each year?” he said.
Baird cautioned board members who have never been through this process before that negotiation is normal.
“The board, for instance, might say, ‘We would like to offer you a contract for two years,’ and the superintendent might come back and say, ‘I respectfully request a four-year contract,’ and you negotiate there,” he said. “And the same thing happens with salary and some of these other benefits. All of that is perfectly legal in Kentucky in negotiating a contract with the superintendent.”
And for the document itself, Oder said, “You need to make sure that everything is spelled out.”
He said boards should make sure the superintendent-to-be signs the contract before it is ratified in open session so that there is no public misunderstanding of what was agreed upon.
A superintendent should know his or her community before beginning a contract negotiation, as well as salary levels in surrounding districts.
“Within the confines of a county or independent district, you’re going to have economic conditions which will dictate to a certain extent what a board will be able to offer,” Baird said. “If you’re in a small, rural district that has limited resources, meaning a small tax base and little industry, no growth, you should not compare yourself to a county that might be next door but has a high tax base with lots of industry and high paying jobs.”
Oder said salary is not as much of an issue if the board has set the parameters in advance.
“Most candidates go into the process with an understanding of what the salary will be, because they’ve done their homework,” he said.
Baird said school board members can avoid some common pitfalls if they get on the same page before they even begin the search process.
“They should establish some parameters for themselves, and say, ‘We believe in this district, here’s a reasonable salary range. We don’t want to hire anyone for less than this, but we probably can’t go any more than this.’ Or, ‘We feel like we could offer the following benefits, probably not any additional,’” he said.
He discouraged individual board members from taking on a role that doesn’t belong to them.
“It’s always detrimental to the process if one or two board members try to take over or get the superintendent candidate to agree with them on issues, or even if they as board members try to lobby for the superintendent to the other board members,” Baird said. “Individual board members should not make promises or lobby on behalf of the superintendent to the other board members, because it is a decision where all board members have to be on the same page.”
Contract negotiation is a good time to begin establishing a strong team with good communication between the parties.
“Just going through the process of negotiating a contract, where the parties sit down and have an open, honest, dialogue helps the whole board process work better, and the relationship between the superintendent and the board,” Baird said. “Coming to agreement on something as important as the contract of the superintendent and hiring your person can be so beneficial in that relationship. It’s a great way to get started.”
KSBA’s Superintendent Search Service provides boards with a sample generic contract and a sample motion for the board vote that includes the salary and length of contract. It also has an optional contract negotiation component.