The people's voice of reason

Time For Alabama Local School Superintendents To Be Appointed – Not Elected

For decades local public school officials, politicians and legislators have debated the method in which local/district superintendents are selected. Nationally, 97.8 percent of all local district school superintendents are appointed. The only exceptions are six southern states which have both appointed and elected superintendents: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. According to the Alabama Association of School Boards, there are currently 138 local school districts and of those 98 superintendents are appointed with the remaining 40 elected. The 40 which continue to elect are all county school systems. Typically, in the districts where superintendents are elected the prevailing sentiment among the citizenry, elected board of education members and local politicians is that it is best to keep the good folks of the county in direct control of the individual who serves as the perceived leader of their schools.

The issue is a multidimensional policy dilemma that involves many players and no clear solution. The debate surrounding the mandated appointment of local school superintendent embodies the struggle for power over the schools among concerned citizens, interest groups, elected board members and educators. During the 1990’s John Gaines, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators, said that all of Florida’s local school superintendents held a master’s degree. Of the 22 appointed superintendents, 12 had earned doctorates but only 4 of the 45 elected superintendents had doctorates. While an earned doctorate (whether a Ph.D. or Ed. D.) does not always make a superintendent a better instructional and organizational leader, educators who complete generally more advanced rigorous doctoral programs in school administration/supervision along with significant required research and often arduous final comprehensive evaluations, bring to the job a broader knowledge base than those who have not experienced and received the additional and higher level study.

During Governor Jim Folsom’s term in office in the early 1990’s he proposed making it mandatory for all local school superintendents be appointed by the local boards of education. This proposed change was supported by the then Executive Director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, Sandra Sims-deGraffenried. However, local movers and shakers, the good ole boys and their politicians held their ground against this progressive change.

Even though this issue is raised and supported by forward-looking citizens, educators and local school board members, it continues to be blocked. There are significant problems with the practice of electing local school superintendents. One obvious problem is insuring that a quality leader is elected who can proficiently lead the schools toward improved learning. The Code of Alabama sets forth “minimum standards” which allow any one of dozens of individuals to run and be elected despite lacking the qualities and experience needed to be a visionary, data-driven leader who will insure that the instructional programs and best practices are in place so that student learning in all schools is assessed and strategies are developed which are effective in improving student progress. Another problem is that the elected superintendent is not required to work in sync with the elected school board members, thus often establishing a power base often difficult to overcome and make progress on the implementation of board policies and actions. The elected superintendent knows well that he/she has been elected by the people for a term (typically 4 years) with few controls of his/her time, no close supervision, quality of work and/or recommendation to the school board which cannot take administrative actions or make decisions without the recommendation of the superintendent. Some superintendents build their own political power base, use this power to influence the election of school board members who favor their approach in leading and withhold recommendations for the board to vote indefinitely. In brief, electing local district superintendents can and often does create a power struggle, hinder progress which would be best for the children. When there is disagreement and/or on-going conflict between board members and the superintendent with regard to the board’s ideas, expectations and/or plans, a relationship of mistrust creating irreconcilable differences, there is a trickle-down effect on the system’s administrators, teachers, staff and parent. It is highly unlikely that instructional programs, test scores and developing “good to great” schools will become a reality.

On the other hand, when local school boards conduct an open, unbiased search and selection process the quality of the superintendent who has been vetted, references checked and verification of prior documented achievements, the individual will more likely hold higher credentials and work closely with the board. If he/she does not perform up to the board’s expectations and is not a visionary, passionate, professional leader the board of education may invoke termination of employment…which is not possible with an elected superintendent whether he/she is in present at the central office every day or on the golf course.

David Nichols, Ed. D. is a regular contributor to The Alabama Gazette where he conducts research, analyzes data and shares findings with various news outlets and other publications. Nichols has served as a teacher and/or administrator at every level of education to include K – 12, undergraduate and graduate roles in higher education institutions, and as a member of two local/district school boards. He has presented and consulted with schools and law enforcement on leadership and security.


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