Wednesday / May 29

So Now You’re the Superintendent: Working With Employees


All superintendents must learn to work effectively with their district’s employees. Of particular importance is mastering the art of “negotiations,” or collective bargaining as it is more formally known. In almost every state, public school employees have the right to bargain wages, benefits, and working conditions with their employers—the school board. This right usually covers teachers, support staff, and in many instances administrators.

Collective bargaining is not confined to salary negotiations. Your daily work with individual employees, unions, the board and staff as a whole create the foundation for success at the “bargaining table.” You must master a wide range of complex and often interconnected leadership skills to manage the complexities of the collective bargaining process and to fully motivate and engage your staff. Your success in working with employees will determine your success in achieving your goals and the district’s educational mission.

The following are some suggestions for working with employees and mastering the collective bargaining process:

  • Master state law, contract management, finance and budgeting. Learn the history of collective bargaining in your district. Find out who sits “at the table” and the role legal counsel plays in your district negotiations.
  • Exercise good judgment. Develop a deep reservoir of trust and confidence with your board, community, union leadership and their constituents. Honor staff for their work and commitment. Respect the integrity and value of the collective bargaining process. Demonstrate that student instructional needs are paramount.
  • Understand and respect the competing needs of employees, staff, students, parents and the community.
    • For students and parents: a quality education for all
    • For staff: respect, equitable compensation and supportive working conditions
    • For community: fiscally sound and educationally successful schools
  • Know that problems arise when the balance is lost and one group believes that the district is meeting the needs of another group at their expense.
  • Learn the difference between adversarial and non-adversarial bargaining and what prevails in your district. Understand collective bargaining concepts such as, “Management Rights,” “Negotiating in Good Faith,” and “tentative agreement.”
  • Examine the role your board plays in negotiations, recognizing that they represent the interests of the community and are the final decision makers for the district.
  • Meet regularly with employee leadership and always provide accurate and timely information as requested. Learn the importance of respecting employee leadership.
  • Recognize negotiations can be contentious, no matter how good the relationships are between you and the union leadership. Your best strategy is always to demonstrate respect and integrity with all employees.
  • Know the issues important to teachers, support staff and administrators; understand the issues important to Board, parents and community.
  • Learn the costs associated with compensation paying particular attention to health care issues and costs.
  • Increase your knowledge of negotiations through workshops, reading and discussions with other professionals.

It takes time for a new superintendent to become a skilled negotiator. Each cycle brings new insights and better ways to negotiate. What you learn, or fail to learn, along the way will impact your relationships with staff and the unions.

Even in districts where employee relationships are based on mutual trust and integrity, your first negotiations as a superintendent is challenging. Staff, parents, and community look to you to meet their needs, even if they are in conflict. For students, you are their voice. Your goal is to reach agreements with employees that enhance the lives of students while meeting the needs of stakeholders.

Written by

Mary Frances Callan and Bill Levinson are experienced superintendents with over thirty years of superintendent experience. They are the authors of Achieving Success for New and Aspiring Superintendents: A Practical Guide, which was written specifically for experienced principals and district office administrators who want to become superintendents.

They are committed to the belief that the more knowledgeable an administrator is about the superintendent position before seeking the position the more likely they will obtain a position and be successful in their first, most challenging year.

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