How New Superintendents Can Kick-Start Momentum

Three outcomes superintendents can accomplish by focusing first on the next year's budget

Read the article as it appeared on the Real Clear Education website.


As the school year gets underway, there is an important group of leaders also starting a new job: school district superintendents. This year, a particularly large number of districts are welcoming new chief executives – from Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento in California to Detroit and Cincinnati in the Midwest to Washington D.C., Hartford and Newark (later this year) in the Northeast.

The first few months of a new superintendent’s tenure offer a unique opportunity to inspire and initiate change. But even in the best cases, incoming district leaders commonly miss out on their biggest opportunity for near-term impact and building momentum: their first budget.

A new leader typically invests significant time in conducting a "listening tour," documenting findings and beginning to develop a strategic plan. This person must also ensure a smooth start to the school year, find some visible “quick wins” and assess – and potentially rebuild – the senior leadership team. As the fall begins, the 2018-19 budget process will quickly get underway. This requires new leaders to move fast to influence strategic decisions about resource use – or risk losing two full years of potential progress toward system transformation.

It may seem counterintuitive to act quickly on next year’s budget while still engaging in a listening tour and early strategy development – activities that require authentic humility and patience. But moving boldly to shape the next year’s budget can help establish positive norms and relationships by accomplishing the following:

  • Setting the tone that the new administration is data-driven. Smart leaders work fast to generate rapid insight into how resources are organized across the system and use that insight to shape the dialogue with local stakeholders, which creates an objective fact base for inspiring change in the upcoming budget cycle.
  • Demonstrating respect for the community’s journey to the present day. Respect for what’s come before doesn’t mean maintaining the status quo – it means moving quickly to address long-standing concerns and laying the groundwork for longer-term impact.
  • Signaling the need to make change urgently. Boards and mayors hire superintendents with the passion for creating more opportunities for students now and in the future. With all the early focus on “in the future,” first-year system leaders still need to generate action that affects the “now” – not just quick wins for the current school year, but also systemic changes with the potential to stick.

In a world where the average tenure of a big-city superintendent is less than four years, the new superintendent must capitalize on his or her first budget cycle to ensure resources are allocated optimally to drive performance improvement. By supplementing the honest inquiry, listening and relationship development required for long-term impact with a deep focus on meaningful change in the first full-year budget, the smart superintendent creates a true “flywheel effect” – one that spurs powerful positive momentum across the district and helps establish the superintendent as a bold and forward-looking leader.