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Attributes of a new school superintendent

By Gerald Totten
Posted Thursday, September 9, 2004

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I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this public input. I also hope this is a precursor to other “town hall” types of meetings between the “new” Board of Education and the public. Last weeks’ input session was sparsely attended, perhaps because of the short notice and an unfortunate feeling which is prevalent and based upon historical events. The comments I heard were, “It’s Wednesday and I go to church”, “What difference will it make if I go?” and “They never listened before.” Perhaps this new opportunity and more like it will overcome those comments.

We need a superintendent with business experience over academic and teaching qualifications.

Before addressing the desired attributes of a school superintendent, I feel a description of my qualifications to make such comments is appropriate.

I am a retired United States Marine, having served 30 years, 10 months and 27 days and served in every grade and rank from Private through Staff Sergeant and then Second Lieutenant through full Colonel. My major assignments involved command of Marines, Sailors and other joint United States and foreign service personnel with my last command of 4,900 combat troops.

Since military retirement in 1978, I’ve had industrial experience of over 25 years in turn around management assignments, as a plant superintendent then as a senior project manager building and restoring manufacturing facilities for two nationally known manufacturers. In those positions it was my responsibility to negotiate and supervise contracts, hire, train and, when necessary, terminate unsatisfactorily performing personnel and contractors. I have been responsible for multi million dollar projects and contracts with the majority coming in under budget.

In addition to business and professional experiences outlined, Governor Hunt appointed me to his statewide Workforce Preparedness Task Force and I headed a four county Private Industry Council for two of the eight years served. I have attended virtually all of the public Board of Education meetings since last August and many more prior to that observing and, when allowed, participating. None of this makes me a candidate for superintendent, however.

I know something about successfully managing, about personnel selection and about money management! In that vein, I offer the following:

What has not been addressed to date is the need for a superintendent with business experience over academic and teaching qualifications. Chatham County’s unprecedented growth causes us to prepare to build schools to the tune of something between 40 and perhaps as high as 75 million dollars of taxpayer bond money. In addition to that bond, never equaled in Chatham’s history, the superintendent is responsible for local, state and federal funds of some $54 millions last year and probably a similar amount this year. There does not appear to be anyone on the school central office staff who can adequately supervise all aspects of such an effort. Reliance on the superintendent is essential at present, hence the demand for one with business experience.

We need a superintendent who is a healer who can bring together the diversity in this County as well as correct the diminished relationships between the school system and the county staff, county commissioners and the public.

We need a superintendent who does not need to preface his or her words with, “I’ll be honest with you.” Every word out of his or her mouth must be truthful since that is expected of such a prestigious position. There should be no need to advertise honesty.

We need a superintendent who will empower subordinates up to and including training his or her replacement so that a lengthy illness, transfer, retirement or death does not result in a perceived need to hire an interim superintendent.

We need a superintendent who is approachable by his or her subordinates and other members of the public without concern of retribution – a leader who does not subscribe to Machiavellian managing.

We need a superintendent without myopic vision – one who can set long range goals with constant input from a number of sources including parents, taxpayers and teachers. Equally as important is the ability to keep such goals up to date using appropriate forecasting tools.

Lastly, we need a superintendent who manages “by walking around.” One who visits schools and classrooms on a regular basis; one who leads by example showing true interest in the direction of our educational efforts; one who makes an effort to clearly explain to the Board of Education legal and policy questions as they arise rather than correcting them after errors have been made and; one who recognizes that the central office is subservient to the Board of Education in all matters.

Thanks again for opening some long needed dialog in a public forum. More than that thanks however, I am grateful the two newly elected board members will have a part in the final say and that this system will hire a superintendent we can all be proud of.

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