Using Interim Superintendents

By Leonard D. Fitts

School districts are losing their superintendents at an alarming rate. What is more daunting is the shortage of available school leaders to replace the rapidly departing superintendents. During the 2012 school year, New Jersey saw approximately 31.4 percent of its districts losing their superintendents. In 2011, 28.9 percent of districts lost superintendents. In 2010, about 55 New Jersey districts had an interim, rather than a permanent, superintendent at the helm.

At any time, about 22 percent of the nation’s school districts are headed by interim or acting superintendents, rather than by permanent ones, according to the American Association of School Administrators.

The vacancy rate in New Jersey is consistent with districts in other states. The shortage of leadership for the schools adds an additional burden to school boards that are dealing with other urgent issues: tight budgets, student and staff safety, and student academic achievement. In their efforts to continue the mission, vision, and continued progress of the district, they have sought relief by hiring interims.

An interim superintendent is a person, often a retired superintendent, who provides leadership for a district for a short period -- usually no longer than two years. (Some states, including New Jersey, put limits on interim tenures.)

During this time, the board is looking for a permanent leader, and is going through the process of recruiting, interviewing, and negotiating a contract.

A popular notion is that an interim is a placeholder and that, while he or she sits in the superintendent’s chair, the interim usually doesn’t act or behave like a “real” school superintendent. The typical interim school superintendent, so goes the myth, spends a quiet period minding the store until a new superintendent arrives. Interim school superintendents often lack the prestige, power, and time to accomplish much. They act as “caretakers” to maintain business as usual.

These notions could not be more wrong. Any interim superintendent worth having is capable of making tough decisions and providing real leadership that steers a district toward its academic and fiscal goals. School boards should expect no less from any interim they employ. 

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