School Superintendent  What They Do

Just the Facts

Insider Info

dotSchool superintendents hold the top jobs in a school district. They oversee operations at all schools. They make sure everything runs smoothly for thousands of kids and teachers in every area of campus life, from school bus schedules to national testing.

They also report to the district's elected school board. They help it control budgets, write up teacher contracts and establish school policies and curriculum.

"The superintendent is essentially the chief executive officer of a school system," says Joseph Schneider. He is the former deputy director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"They are the visionary leaders and managers of the school system. They hire and fire principals, monitor other personnel, oversee purchasing, construction, everything. They do it all."

A school superintendent's level of responsibility depends on the size of a district's jurisdiction. Districts in most urban areas can hold dozens of schools. Some rural districts have only three or four. The busier supers generally have other administrators, called assistants, deputies or subsuperintendents, helping them cover the bases.

Superintendents have to be keen on the issues facing schools today in order to stay on top of their communities' shifting concerns. They often have to juggle the interests of several groups, whether they are students, teachers, parents or board members. But if there's one issue everyone agrees on, it's the common goal of student achievement.

"States are very concerned about state-mandated testing, so school boards would be concerned about how well the students in their districts do when measured against these standards," says Schneider. "It's the responsibility of the superintendent to be able to report on that, and hopefully be able to say things are looking good."

dotSuperintendents' enormous pressures contribute to a stress level as high as their field's turnover. Almost every aspect of a school's running falls on the super's shoulders. And many decide the job's responsibilities and pay simply aren't worth their trouble.

"It's an extremely high-stress job," says Anne Patterson. She is a former superintendent in Houston. "Frankly, it doesn't carry financial incentives comparable to what you'd get in a private institution. And consequently, I think it's really hard to find people suited to the demands of the job. There's a very high turnover, particularly in the urban areas."

"It's a very demanding job and therefore has a high turnover," agrees Schneider. "Everybody feels they can call the superintendent to complain about everything, from Johnny's teacher to the fact that the band didn't sound good at the ball game, or that the ball team isn't winning, or test scores aren't going up, or that the other school is doing better than my kids' school.

"They're under a lot of stress because everybody's got an opinion about it," he adds. "You and I and everybody else went through school, so we all think we know how to run it."

dotSchool superintendents spend most of their time in cars, meetings and schools. When they're not out on the front lines of management, they're at their desk working plenty of overtime.

"The hours are definitely beyond 9 to 5," says Patterson. "It's a kind of job that's very much like teaching in that when you're a teacher, you're never really finished because there's always more you can do for the children. With my job, it's the same idea -- there's always more you can do for your schools' growth."

"They're a hard breed to get a hold of," says Neil Gannon. He is the director of an organization of superintendents. "They have numerous meetings to attend -- some at individual schools, some with the board trustees....And then of course they try to visit their schools as often as they can. So they're out of the office a great deal of the time."

"Superintendents are on the go an awful lot, because they are the spokesperson for the school system," says Schneider. "They have the responsibility for dealing with parents, community groups, social service agencies, their own board of directors, state officials and federal officials."

dotOther than frequent driving to meeting sites, there are no special physical requirements involved in being a school superintendent. "People with physical disabilities could easily do it," says Schneider.

At a Glance

Oversee the operation of several schools

  • This is not a 9-to-5 job
  • Be prepared for a lot of stress
  • Start as a teacher and work your way up