The role of superintendent has always been a high pressure job. And the expectations have grown in recent years with the wave of changes brought on by the pandemic, student safety and wellness, divisive politics, and an evolving educational environment.
As a former superintendent in California, I know how challenging it is to balance multiple priorities while navigating a public-facing position, and most importantly, never losing the “kids first” mentality. It’s a lot to navigate, and the one thing I found valuable during my time as superintendent was dedicating time to listening and having meaningful conversations with families, students, staff, and community members throughout my district.
Whether you are a new superintendent or have been in your role for years, 2023 will be a critical year for leading a listening tour in your district. As you spend time in conversations this year, here are five themes to keep in mind:
1. Be fiscally aware.
For nearly a decade, school districts have had what some would call historically strong budgets. While there have been challenges, there have also been opportunities to expand programs and provide additional support with the help of ESSER funding.
However, budgets could start to look different over the next two years in the national landscape. Given the last major budget reduction for districts happened around 2007-2008, many veteran superintendents today haven’t experienced a major financial crisis while leading a district.
As you look at this year’s forecast, get a better picture of your current spending and start building the message you want to share around your district’s budget. Areas to look at may include an evaluation of your district’s programs and hiring practices and position control. You could also lead a “what if” budget review with your executive cabinet to help identify pockets or trends that would be helpful for potential budget support in the future.
Many superintendents are turning to SaaS solutions like Let’s Talk — the only customer service and intelligence platform built for K-12 school districts — to prepare for the future. This platform helps districts save money by consolidating technology while giving more time back to staff by streamlining incoming inquiries through a unified inbox.
2. Get a lay of the land on employee recruitment and retention.
With the evolving workforce, pay attention to how your district is recruiting both certificated teachers and classified staff, especially classroom aides, bus drivers, and office staff. It will also be critical to look at the recruitment and retention of executive leaders and principals.
In 2023, make it a priority to ensure your business office and human resources department are aligned on hiring processes, and ensure you have a grasp on major hiring trends within the district — like how many open positions are in the district, how many positions are on leave, and how many roles are on tenure and non-tenure.
3. Understand how family needs and engagement are evolving.
The evolving workforce doesn’t only impact school staff — it’s affecting families, too. Many parents and guardians have more flexibility in their work schedules and they’re spending that extra time with their children — meaning they’re more involved than ever with the educational experience.
To stay competitive and ensure students stay enrolled in your district, spend intentional time listening to families and students to learn what they expect from their educational environment. Listening and opening the door for actionable conversations will allow you to examine what the traditional school day may look like in the future.
4. Take a holistic approach to student safety and wellness.
Superintendents have faced hard challenges around safety and wellness in recent years. The mental health crisis amongst children was declared a national emergency in 2021. Coming out of the pandemic, we saw a record number of school shootings and shootings involving children in 2022, along with a surge of swatting hoaxes.
Moving forward, it will be absolutely critical to look at student safety and wellness together. In 2023, safety is about more than physical security measures within a district — it’s about putting student wellness measurements in place to ensure everyone feels safe and supported when they come to school.
5. Prioritize serving families in your district.
As school districts everywhere navigate student attrition and staff shortages this year, make customer service a priority for your district so you can take a proactive approach to supporting the needs of families and staff.
Customer service is no longer only for the retail and business world. It’s an essential practice for school districts to keep families, students, and staff happy. Customer service prioritizes listening and making it easy for customers — your families, students, staff, and community members — to ask questions, share feedback, and get the information they need when they need it.
I hope these themes help guide your conversations this year and gather meaningful insights from your listening tour. For more ideas on planning a listening tour, explore K12 Insight’s School Superintendent Listening Tour Toolkit.