Superintendents – or Super-humans?

This opinion piece in the February 27 Denver Post seems especially timely.   As they mention, 4 of Colorado’s largest school districts are looking to hire new superintendents, and there are several districts outside of the Denver metro area who are also looking for new district leadership.

In case you hadn’t heard, Jeffco Public Schools is among those. We are the second largest school district in Colorado, with a student count well over 80,000. With 14,000 +/- employees Jeffco Schools are and have been for some time, the largest employer in Jefferson County, but seldom is recognized as such.

Considering these numbers – students and employees – think of how many families rely on the school district.

  • Parents look to the district for their child’s academic and social learning, behavioral health; safety, in some cases food security; transportation to school, school events and athletics; Pre-K, and child care.
  • The Jeffco’s 14,000 employees and their families rely on the district for job security and the ability to have health insurance.

Superintendents are responsible for the people and the system that keeps all of this going, along with making sure schools are ready to serve communities in times of emergencies and disasters (providing evacuation centers for a variety of local crises).

School superintendents are also expected to be:

  • Financial wizards managing multi-million dollar budgets
  • Legislative and political savvy so they can navigate the very deep waters of legislation that impacts what they can and cannot do with a strapped budget. (Oh, those unfunded mandates!)
  • Key negotiators who need to nurture solid and mutually respectful relationships with employees and employee unions all the while balancing what is best for kids, and the district’s ability to provide competitive compensation packages with shrinking funding. And let’s not forget families, the business community, and all other community members!
  • Let’s not forget, we also expect them to be academic leaders.

Even though being a public school superintendent has always been a demanding job that required unreasonable hours, a daily existence of working and living in a fishbowl, constant criticism (some times deserved, but usually from people who have not walked in the shoes of a district leader); today’s superintendent’s role has had new challenges no one ever thought we’d see.

The unusually high job vacancy throughout Colorado – which also exists nationally – is likely due to the unprecedented pressure district leadership has been experiencing as a result of a global pandemic. This year, COVID has brought about monumental hurdles and obstacles.  Superintendents (& school leaders) are recipients of more than just a regular flow of criticism, many now receive threats and vitriol that in years past would have not only been rare, but would have prompted law enforcement investigations.  Sadly, today they are commonplace.

School districts and their leadership have long been expected to do more with less, today the “less” has shrunk significantly (at the end of the last legislative session the state owed schools $1.2 Billion) and yet they are expected to do all of what we’ve listed above, but do it with turnkey results, little-to-no room for error, and sometimes we even expect to see some pizazz.

If you have any doubt regarding superintendent turnover across the nation, we invite you to check out this website –  just one of the many search firms who help with recruitment of school district leaders:

The Denver Post opinion piece calls for business leaders to step up and participate in the recruitment of our school district leaders.  Certainly, their input will be greatly valued. The business community has a lot at stake when it comes to the success of our public schools.

But perhaps we all need to take a step back, and allow for some grace, too.  We ask and expect our school district leaders to be super human, and when their plain human side leaks through, we can be harsh and unforgiving.  Seeing an entire school district and community through the COVID crisis is an insurmountable undertaking – the federal government wasn’t ready for it, why should we expect more from our school district leadership?

“They say, if you want to know what a community values, look at how its children are treated.  If you want a sense of what a community hopes for the future, look at how it values its schools.”