How to be a superintendent: Be ready for everything

August 2, 2019

At annual leadership conference, pros give advice on running districts

By Ross Brenneman

Lauren Casella EdD '18

Lauren Casella EdD ’18, an assistant clinical professor at Loyola Marymount University, speaks at the 2019 USC Rossier Leadership Conference about pathways to teaching in higher education. (Photo/Joshua J. Krause)

It’s a scorcher in Los Angeles—sun blazing, heat index just under 100 degrees. And established and aspiring education leaders alike are in a standing-room only hotel conference room, hearing from a panel of experts at the 2019 USC Rossier Leadership Conference about pathways toward earning a school district superintendency.

And in the words of those experts, all it takes to be a superintendent is the ability to be a great communicator, change agent, role model, prognosticator, politician, networker, brand ambassador and … the list goes on.

“I am not a chess player but I do like Jenga,” said Shelley Adams EdD ’17. “That’s really the work of a superintendent: Putting the right pieces in at the right time in the right way, and making sure even though the tower waves, it never falls.”

Adams became superintendent of Baldy View Regional Occupational Program, located in San Bernardino County, in 2012. Despite the complexities and demands of leading a district, Adams insists, “it’s an awesome job.”

Building networks

This year’s USC Rossier Leadership Conference brought more than 200 educators together at USC Hotel in late July. Co-sponsored by the Dean’s Superintendents Advisory Group (DSAG), attendees are USC Rossier alumni and current students, a majority coming from the EdD in Educational Leadership program.

The conference always brims with expertise: USC Rossier now has 80 alumni who are active superintendents; most recently, Emy Flores EdD ’15 became head of the Evergreen School District in June.

Yet for as many superintendents as there are at the conference, none suggest the path is easy.

“You don’t know what it’s like until you’re in that chair,” said Robert Haley EdD ’01, superintendent of San Dieguito Union High School District. “I was an assistant superintendent—it was 500 miles away from being a superintendent.” Haley noted the work he’s had to do making sure his school board is on the same page with him and functioning well.

And even once in the position, all kinds of systemic barriers can cause challenges.

Mary McNeil MS ’80, PhD ’96, superintendent of the Needles Unified School District, said she encountered many instances of men thinking she couldn’t balance a budget because she’s a woman—meaning her decision to get her chief business official (CBO) certification has proved valuable in a sort of “How do you like them apples?” way.

Not that such incidents have slowed McNeil down; with half a laugh, she said she still has “20 years’ worth” of work to do.

“There’s nothing greater,” she said, “than to do what you love and see the fruits of your labor.”

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