All superintendents are responsible for managing their employment contracts. This responsibility begins before you become a superintendent and continues throughout your entire career. It is essential that you keep abreast of changes in contract law by attending workshops; reading the professional journals; and conferring with your own counsel, peers, or state administrative association consultants.
Effective contract management requires you to pay attention to your contract and bring requests for modifications to the board on a regular basis. In some districts the board chair selects one or two board members to serve as an unofficial committee, working with you on contract management issues. These two board members are likely to be those who negotiated your original contract on behalf of the board. In other districts the board chair and one other board member compose the sub-committee.
Bring your contract concerns or recommendations for change to these board members for discussion well in advance of the annual anniversary date of the end of the contract term. This gives you the opportunity to “test” your proposals with the subcommittee before submitting the proposals to the full board. This also provides the board sufficient time to review your proposals before the end of the school year.
Frequently, inexperienced superintendents accept contract language at the time of hire that may not be in their best interests. They assume that they can change the less favorable terms in future years. This can be a successful strategy if the superintendent’s performance in the first few years of the employment contract is outstanding and the board wants to do everything possible to keep the superintendent in the district. Otherwise, the superintendent may find it far more difficult to remove the unfavorable terms.
The two contract provisions that most new superintendents want to change are the term of the contract and conditions for termination. Most boards want to hire a new superintendent for a three year term. Many contracts have an “evergreen clause” which provides for an automatic one year extension of the contract if you receive a satisfactory evaluation. . In situations that do not include a provision for an automatic extension, you must ask the board for an extension. After one or two years of successful performance you may wish to add an “evergreen” clause or request a two year contract extension as most states limit the term of a superintendent’s contract to no more than four years.
The second provision, conditions for termination, is one that causes many problems for new superintendents. Boards recently suffering from an unsatisfactory superintendent often insist on dismissal provisions that provide the board the broadest possible degree of control. New superintendents faced with an “all or nothing” contract proposal tend to soften the provisions, but accept the language in the end. After two years of successful performance, you then attempt to negotiate better, more accommodating language.
You are more likely to experience success in changing the contract if your performance has been exemplary and you still have the board that hired you. However, the best strategy is to use your counsel to negotiate contract provisions that provide you the most protection. For new superintendents, this requires substantial contract knowledge and support systems prior to seeking the first superintendent position.
Most experienced superintendents seek an increase in their compensation after completion of their annual evaluation and negotiations with all employee groups. Some contracts have clearly determined provisions for compensation increases, helping reduce the political fall-out from an increase in compensation but possibly limiting your ability to maintain competitive with other superintendents. Still others are silent on the details, allowing for greater political risk but more financial reward.
Do not take action on your contract before negotiations are completed for all other groups. Superintendents who put themselves “first” are resented by employees. Employee groups will use your increase as the model for their raises, believing, “If it’s good enough for the superintendent, it’s good enough for us.” This is especially true in hard times. Many superintendents refuse to accept the guaranteed increases built into their contracts when other employees will not receive an increase.
If funds are available for salary increases, assess your status with the board and the political environment. Develop your recommendations and include a clear rationale and back up data where appropriate. Most boards recognize that they must compensate their superintendent well if they wish to keep the superintendent in the district. They also realize that the superintendent’s compensation is always of political interest to staff, parents, and the community. The likelihood of a negative push back is greatest if the superintendent’s new compensation is much larger than superintendents’ in comparable districts, or if the percentage increase is greater than that received by teachers, support staff, and management team, , even if the superintendent should deserve the increase.
You must determine the level of political risk and emotional stress you are willing to experience. Some superintendents ignore the critical, and even hostile, comments from the newspaper articles and editorials. They continue working without personal consequence until they decide to move on. Other superintendents are crippled by the criticism and attention. Once “burned” by the political consequences of a big salary increase, they elect to stay within a “safe” compensation zone. As a result, they fall further and further behind other superintendents. They resent their situation and decide to seek a position in another district to increase their compensation.
Some successful superintendents elect to “run out” their contract, working through the full three or four years of their contract without seeking an extension of the contract term. They prefer to wait until there is one year left in the contract and then renegotiate the entire contract. The advantage to this is that it forces the board to compare your contract provisions and compensation to what a new superintendent would receive. The disadvantages are that changes in the board combined with perceptions of lower performance can greatly reduce your leverage.
After three or four successful years as superintendent, work with your board and conduct a thorough review of your contract and compensation. This is the time to let the board know what you need to remain in the district for another four or five years. Experienced, competent boards expect you to do this and will address your needs. If they are unwilling to do this you may want reconsider your decision to remain in the district.