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New superintendents experience many “firsts” when they start their new role. More often than not, the negotiation of their own personal contract is one of those opportunities. If they have followed a traditional path of teacher, principal, and central office leader, contracts have been standardized and built around years of service. A superintendent contract is a completely different entity that requires thoughtfulness and political savvy to negotiate. Overreach, and a new superintendent may damage relationships with the board before even starting the position; undervaluing the contract may set the foundation for difficult negotiations in future years. 

There are ways to make this experience a positive one and allow a new superintendent to establish solid financial footing as they embark on their new leadership journey. Some high-level ideas about contract negotiations would include:

  1. Hire a lawyer: While some novice leaders may think they can handle this opportunity without legal representation, that is a mistake. An experienced lawyer will know elements and statues required in the basic contract and can shut down unreasonable requests from whoever is negotiating for the board. Additionally, it keeps the selected superintendent from having to challenge ideas and positions an aggressive board may want to make and puts the spotlight on the lawyer not the candidate.
  1. Be aspirational, but realistic about salary:  The search firm leading the process should have shared a salary range the board had established at the beginning of the search process. Do not automatically anticipate that a board is going to go past their ceiling, especially for a first-time superintendent. At the same time, do not accept a lowball offer; the departing superintendent’s salary should establish a baseline for negotiations. Accepting a low base salary and expecting a board to ” make amends” in future years can lead to resentment and bad feelings on both sides.
  1. Be open to creative ways to enhance compensation beyond the base: Remember, superintendent contracts are public record. A large base salary, especially if it far exceeds the previous superintendent’s contract, can cause issues among the employees of the district and the broader community. A creative lawyer can add a multitude of things to enhance the package that do not draw as much attention including housing/car allowances, contributions to retirement accounts and easily achieved bonuses. One caution on bonus pay; if it is presented as a way for a board to greatly reduce base pay that should be a deal breaker. For a superintendent, it is difficult to accept archived bonus pay if you find yourself in tough economic times or are limited to raises for staff in a budget cycle. Many superintendents have had to refuse the very pay that made the accepted package viable.
  1. Money matters but it’s not the most important part of the contract:  Many novice superintendents are so focused on the financial aspects of the contract, they negotiate away other critical aspects of the contract. It is important that the contract addresses scope of responsibilities, reporting structures, how issues are resolved and when the board can meet without the superintendent. It should also include clear language about evaluations and termination of the contract. Again, this is why an experienced lawyer is critical. There should be language that establishes that the only position the candidate can hold in the district is “superintendent” ensuring that if things go poorly at some point the board can’t try to force a resignation by threatening demotion.

 These negotiations don’t have to be acrimonious; in fact, they should be a way to continue building a strong relationship between the incoming superintendent and board. A fair contract, clearly establishing important governance norms, can help build an excellent foundation for the board and new superintendent to form a strong team and begin the important work of serving children.