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Patti Bacchus: VSB needs a new superintendent of schools

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Teacher and education-assistant shortages are a problem for B.C. school boards, but what many may not know is how hard it can be to recruit good school superintendents, and why that’s so important.

News broke yesterday (May 5) that the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) superintendent of schools, Suzanne Hoffman, will be the B.C. School Trustees’ Association (BCSTA) new CEO, replacing Mike Roberts, who is also a former school superintendent.

Notwithstanding my view that B.C.’s school boards need the support and advice of a BCSTA CEO with extensive governance expertise and experience (versus another former superintendent), Hoffman is a good catch for the group that represents and supports B.C.’s elected school boards, and her departure will be felt as a loss to the VSB.

Hoffman served only three-and-a-half years at the VSB and was the first woman to hold the superintendent’s job there. She is well liked and respected but appeared to struggle running the complex school district, especially when it came to keeping her senior team focused on supporting the work of the board.

Superintendents, who are also their board’s chief executive officers, are the top employees in each of B.C.’s 60 public school districts and are hired by their boards to manage the operations of the district. They are the boards’ only direct reports—all other employers report to the superintendent through a hierarchal chain of command.

Suzanne Hoffman is the new CEO of the B.C. School Trustees Association.
VSB

In B.C., school superintendents are required to have a valid teaching certificate, which makes sense in terms of understanding what the school system and teaching are about, and most come to the role with years of experience in classrooms, principals’ offices, and other district management roles.

The problem is superintendents in large districts like Vancouver are also the CEOs of massive and complicated organizations, with thousands of employees (represented by multiple unions), operating budgets that exceed a half-billion dollars a year, huge real estate portfolios, and complex facility issues. They work in a political arena but need to stay out of the fray themselves. They’re spending the public’s money on other people’s children, and they need to be publicly accountable and effective communicators. They advise their elected boards on how to allocate limited budgets, with endless competing demands and never enough money to pay for them.

The range of issues that land on superintendents’ desks or in their inboxes is staggering. I know this because as VSB chair for six years, I spent most Friday afternoons in long meetings with former superintendents and the secretary treasurers, debriefing on the week’s events and looking ahead to the coming week.

The list of issues they would brief me on was mind-blowing: lawsuits, union disputes, filling key vacancies, shortage of necessary supports for students with special needs, facility issues (these were overwhelming, with aging and deteriorating physical plant), relationships with various groups, disruptive directives from the Ministry of Education, internal power struggles, problematic parents, incidents involving racism, homophobia, and violence, and on and on.

Throw into the mix chronic funding shortfalls and something like COVID-19 and you’ve got a job that no faculty of education, or years in the classroom, truly prepare you for.

Turnover at the top

Before the Hoffman news broke, I was already thinking about this topic after reading this post (“Turnover at the Top: What’s Shaking up School District Leadership”) by Paul Bennett in Nova Scotia, who writes extensively about K-12 education.

Bennett focuses on the challenge of high turnover in top education ranks in Ontario and the shortage of candidates to fill the roles. B.C. has a similar problem, and it’s not a new one.

I participated in hiring two superintendents for the VSB, along with an interim position, after two retirements. We were fortunate to find good candidates in the end, but I was surprised at how few really good candidates we had to choose from—despite national searches and salaries in the $200,000-plus range, with generous pension and benefit packages.

Martin Dunphy

People who are drawn to education as a career are unlikely, for the most part, to want to be CEOs of large organizations and put in the kind of hours that are required in larger districts, and they seldom have the necessary skills and knowledge. It’s a relentless job that doesn’t leave a lot of time for work-life balance.

That may explain, in part, why women are vastly underrepresented in the job in comparison with their numbers working in classrooms.

What Bennett digs into in his post is the thorny issue of what kind of experience and qualifications superintendents should bring to the job. Is business experience an asset or a liability? Would changing the teaching-certificate requirement open up the candidate pool to a more diverse range of applicants?

Ontario’s controversial education minister, Stephen Lecce, has supported changing the requirement that superintendent candidates be qualified teachers, which, not surprisingly, did not go over well with public education advocates and teachers unions. Opponents, as expected, pointed out that police chiefs are also police officers, fire chiefs are firefighters, and hospital presidents are (usually) doctors.

It makes sense that a superintendent/CEO coming in from outside the sector, with no classroom or school experience, would not have the deep knowledge to effectively direct a school district’s operations.

I also came to believe that a deep knowledge of B.C.’s education system, along with an understanding of Vancouver’s demographics and communities, was critical to a superintendent’s success in the district, which would make it hard for an out-of-province candidate.

Like their elected boards, it’s ultimately the superintendents’ job to improve student outcomes. Sounds simple, but it’s anything but.

Is there a better way to manage school districts?

I’ve given the above question a lot of thought during many years. I’ve concluded that there probably is not. It sounds nice to think of having a group of master teachers run schools in a collaborative way, eliminating high-priced management roles, but I know too much about how complicated the job is to see that ever working anywhere other than a very small district.

I’ve heard the “get rid of all the bloated senior-management jobs and hire more teachers” arguments over the years, and although there may be something to them in some districts, in my experience, years of funding shortfalls have hollowed out a lot of district administration, making the jobs and heavy workloads even less desirable than ever.

Succession planning is a constant challenge. Superintendents are often eligible for their full pensions in their late 50s. If they keep working beyond that point, they are essentially just working for the difference between their pension and their salary.

Many leave and take on other jobs, collecting their pension and new salary, which may be a factor in Hoffman’s decision. Others, like former Surrey superintendent Mike McKay and former Victoria superintendent Piet Langstraat, retire and then reappear—frequently—in lucrative contracted gigs for the Ministry of Education.

What that means is a lot of qualified and experienced superintendents leave the sector while they’re still in their prime, with few experienced successors ready to step into top jobs.

Good ones are worth it and weak ones will cost you more

School boards make a lot of difficult decisions, and hiring the right superintendent is the most important one they will ever make. Getting it wrong can bring disastrous results and create endless conflict and problems.

A good superintendent is a master at communicating and building relationships. They have a strong, student-focused vision driving their decisions. They can anticipate problems and resolve them before they take form. They build trust and a strong team around them.

They show care for the people who work in the system, but are firm in their expectations. They welcome dissenting voices and bring them into decision-making and focus on shared goals, not points of disagreement.

They respect the role and direction of the elected board, which is their employer. They understand the difference in their roles. They ensure their senior team does too.

Weak superintendents can create havoc and instability in their districts. In my first round of hiring a superintendent, I was warned by a senior district leader that a candidate would be “eaten alive” by the rest of the management team.

It was an important point. Some of a superintendent’s biggest challenges, as it turns out, are keeping their own senior team in line (which is much harder than many realize) and staying cool under public pressure. If they aren’t able to do that effectively, things will unravel quickly, destabilizing their districts and inflicting immense collateral damage. 

Mitigating the qualification conundrum

Classroom experience should continue to be a requirement for superintendents, but there needs to be opportunities for those interested in education leadership roles to have access to the kind of professional-development opportunities—perhaps even by spending time working outside the sector—to equip them with the range of skills needed to lead a large district.

Many work their way up, starting in junior management roles to get experience, or by working in senior roles in smaller districts. That helps, and for some that’s maybe enough.

Universities also have postgraduate programs for school leaders, but they’re usually in faculties of education, led by others in the education sector. I don’t know if that’s the best approach. Perhaps some outside expertise would be beneficial for some.

Changing the narrative

I’d like to get away from the “bloated leadership” argument (although it’s true in a few districts) and focus on the value of really good leaders and how to cultivate them.

A good leader can make a huge difference, even in a challenging, underfunded district. Heck, especially in a challenging, underfunded district.

A weak or insecure—or arrogant and ignorant—superintendent can be a costly (think grievances, arbitrations, lawsuits, and exodus of good employees) and painful mistake that can take years to recover from. I can think of a few examples, past and present, working in B.C. school districts, unfortunately.

What makes a good school superintendent? How can we support the development of more of them? How can we attract good people to the role?

Thanks to Paul Bennett for starting an important discussion. I hope it continues. Good luck to the VSB in finding a good replacement for Hoffman, and all the best to Hoffman in her new role.

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