Being a school superintendent is a tough job – one that demands a broad, and not always congruent, skill set. In a small district such as Riverside’s District 96, there is an expectation of educational leadership, arcane school business management skills, sometimes construction management expertise, personnel oversight, public relations, labor relations and, always, the need to be agile in dealing with elected school boards.
The truth is that only a handful of superintendents can be expert at such a range of critical functions. In this continuum, nearly everybody is bad at something. So the smart superintendents and the wise school boards find ways to compensate for weaknesses, usually through strategic hires.
This is the process that District 96 is going through right now as it prepares to replace Jonathan Lamberson who will retire in the spring. With the board’s acquiescence, Lamberson has taken on many roles and has the inflated paycheck to go with it. So the district has a stripped down organizational chart and a limited depth chart to match. The skinniness of the leadership structure is amplified by the simultaneous spring retirement of Janice Limperis as a both a principal and the district’s de facto instructional leader.
As the school board has approached the hiring process – the most central decision of any elected board – it has asked its search firm to talk to key stakeholders, specifically parents and teachers. The message coming back is not surprising. Parents and teachers want more of what the business-focused Lamberson has been unable to provide, namely an educational vision and strategy and considerably more face time in the schools.
The school board likely doesn’t disagree with that assessment, and they have also done the math. Add together the salaries and rich benefits package being paid to Lamberson and Limperis and the district ought to be able to hire a superintendent, a principal and a player to be named later.
As the school board leadership told The Landmark this week, first the board will go through the interview process for a new superintendent. Depending on the talent and experience of the individual they hire, the board might add a full- or part-time business manager. Or they might fill a talent gap and add instructional leadership ability.
Our experience tells us that most superintendent hires fall somewhere on the pendulum swing. District 96 has focused on finance and organizational skills under Lamberson. The result is healthy finances and a renewed physical plant. This time around the emphasis is likely to be on hiring a leader ready to move the district ahead academically. These are interesting times in elementary ed, with a new focus on differentiated learning and the place of technology in classrooms. There are also issues related to adapting teaching styles and providing greater feedback to teachers.
The school board has said it is likely looking for a less veteran candidate, perhaps a person taking their first job as a superintendent. From the point of view of saving salary, being enthused about technology and working in a collaborative manner that inclination makes sense to us.
District 96 is in the happy position of choosing its new superintendent from a stable and successful position. Now it needs to hire well and then compensate for the new person’s inevitable weak spots.