SLC superintendent should ‘manage up’ and remember the kids.
Recently, it has come to light that the Salt Lake City school district is experiencing some real challenges: not just the challenges of any urban district, such as poverty and political tension, but also superintendent turnover and a board with a tarnished reputation.
Salt Lake City School District is my home. West High School is my alma mater, and before I was a West Panther I was an Ensign Eagle and a Bryant Bobcat. I’m also a career educator. I care about the district, and I care about education.
I imagine that the school board has begun to look for a permanent superintendent. It’ll be a tough gig. Here’s wishing you well — with some unsolicited (but very genuine) advice to get you started.
• Know why you’re in this.
No sane person should want this job. If you’re doing this to advance your career, you likely won’t. Many successful superintendents pay for their success with their career. If you’re doing this because it sounds fun, it likely won’t be. Do this for kids, or don’t do it at all.
• Manage up.
“Doing this for kids” means recruiting great people, evaluating programs, building a great culture, and plenty more. But you have a more immediate problem. The core of SLCSD’s dysfunction is its board.
As superintendent, you have a chance to “manage up.” Set boundaries. Communicate clearly. Define success with clear, measurable metrics. Be direct and honest with the board about what is out of bounds — whether it’s infighting, personal pettiness or attempting to undermine your leadership.
Among the most important boundaries? You run the district. The board runs you. The board does not run the district. Draw that line early.
• Keep the boss(es) happy.
State legislators, journalists, education entrepreneurs, unions — every stakeholder are your evaluators, even if they aren’t technically superiors. They are potential allies. Treat them that way.
You won’t get there by doling out political favors, by the way. You can’t buy your way into relationships, because as soon as people see that it’s open season, they fight all the harder to curry favor.
Build a reputation for being willing to listen, for honestly hearing people out, for being transparent about how you reach decisions, and then doing what’s best for kids.
• Choice is coming. Lean into it.
If the rumors are true, Utah legislators are likely to be pushing toward universal school choice soon. You can be frustrated by this, or you can lean into it. As superintendent, your job is to find a way to pull students back toward high-performing public schools. Create great options, make real and visible gains and commit to parents that their kids will thrive in your schools.
One of the best measures of your efforts will be how many students seek to come to public schools.
Keep in mind, choice isn’t just for kids. It’s for teachers too. With more school choice, teachers will have more options, and you’ll have to work that much harder to keep them. The research evidence says that great teachers are the most effective lever you’ll be able to pull, so whatever efforts you are thinking of, make teachers the centerpiece.
• Manage your political capital well. (And that means spending some.)
You have the chance to kill two birds with one stone fairly early. One of the primary complaints of SLCSD leadership is that they have been unwilling to close underutilized schools. There’s also a real lack-of-trust brewing. You can speak to both by making the hard decision to close schools in a deliberate way: transparently, honestly and with a kids-first mentality.
Closing schools is hard. It’s politically costly. You need to find a way to do hard things anyway. Hoarding your political capital won’t help kids, and it won’t help you. Do the right thing, then let the chips fall where they may.
Good luck. You’ll need every drop. My sincerest best wishes for you, and for the kids you’ll have the privilege to serve.
Benjamin Pacini is a native of Salt Lake City, a career educator and creator and host of the Radical Civility podcast. He is a member of the faculty in the Department of Elementary, Early, and Special Education at Brigham Young University-Idaho.