Superintendent Selection in Tennessee - The Case for Appointed District Leaders

Taking Note FEBRUARY 2012 Examining Key Education Reform Ideas in Tennessee Superintendent Selection in Tennessee: The Case for Appointed District Leaders During the late 1980s and early 1990s, elected officials in Tennessee engaged in a vigorous debate over the best method for selecting school district superintendents. Through the Education Improvement Act (EIA) of 1992—a key initiative of Governor Ned McWherter supported by leading Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly—the state phased out the election of superintendents and instituted a system in which all superintendents are appointed by locally elected school boards. Although many proposals have come before the General Assembly since 1992 to enable districts to elect superintendents, none have gained significant momentum. Support has generally increased for appointed superintendents at the state level. In the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, for example, both the Republican and Democratic nominees were on the record opposing elected superintendents.i The business community and other key education stakeholders have also been vocal opponents of electing superintendents.ii Maintaining the appointment system enacted by the EIA protects the time of superintendents by eliminating pressures elected officials face, including fundraising, campaigning, and addressing patronage requests. SCORE believes superintendents should have one primary area of focus: Ensuring a high quality education for every student in their districts. In the absence of compelling research indicating student performance improves when superintendents are elected, the state must focus on the critical work of implementing its ambitious education reform agenda, rather than disrupt local district governance models. We base this position on four supporting principles: • Elections limit eligibility and the talent pool from which to draw district leaders • The appointment model draws on standard business practices that enhance accountability • Appointment of superintendents is recognized as a best practice in state laws nationally • School boards and superintendents have distinct roles and responsibilities Elections Limit the Available Talent Pool Cultivating strong leaders has been a key priority for SCORE since the release of the 2009 report, A Roadmap to Success. The debate over 1207 18th Avenue South, Suite 326, Nashville, TN 37212 — tel 615.727.1545 — fax 615.727.1569 — whether districts in Tennessee should elect superintendents carries direct implications for the ability of districts to recruit high quality leaders to serve as chief administrators—an ability that would be limited by an election-based model. Many districts with elected superintendents in other states require candidates to reside in the district to be eligible for office. Although this approach is necessary for elected representatives—such as school board members, local council members, and representatives in state and national legislatures—it inhibits the ability of communities to select a school system administrator from a wide pool of capable, qualified leaders. As an example, superintendents serve as elected officials in 65 out of 149 districts in Mississippi. In 2007, 20 candidates for superintendent ran unopposed, and in one district, no candidate filed to run at all.iii Some of these candidates may be highly effective leaders, but if supporters of electing superintendents contend communities should have a choice of system leaders, Mississippi’s experience indicates many voters in a recent election had no choice because of a lack of willing or eligible candidates. This lack of available candidates would likely be reflected in many Tennessee communities with elected superintendents, especially in the state’s most rural and geographically isolated areas. Appointed superintendents offer professionalism, accountability, and a management focus to running our school systems. - Knoxville News Sentinel, March 24, 2011 Superintendents must bring a broad skillset to their positions, as they may serve on a given day as financial analysts, curriculum evaluators, personnel managers, logistical coordinators, student advocates, and even weather forecasters. Communities need the ability to conduct broad searches for district leaders that bring high levels of competency across the skillsets from which superintendents must draw. Elected school boards can set qualifications for candidates and conduct comprehensive searches to find the right leader for their districts. 1207 18th Avenue South, Suite 326, Nashville, TN 37212 — tel 615.727.1545 — fax 615.727.1569 —