Leading through a fiscal nightmare: The impact on principals and superintendents – Part two

| June 24, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Rick Ginsberg and Karen D. Multon

Our research revealed that in the current tough fiscal environment, school principals and superintendents1 feel they are being forced to provide greater levels of service with fewer resources.

Indeed, expectations are increasing for schools as high-profile outcome criteria like adequate yearly progress (AYP) continue to rise while cuts are affecting services that could benefit many students. One principal explained, “We are expected to do more and more with less and less, and the challenges are not getting any less while societal pressures on staff and students increase.” Another said, “NCLB2 nails us with AYP, yet we can’t provide programming to overcome the challenges.” Principals consistently commented on the growing levels of stress and concern while having to do more with less.

Cuts affect all

Principals were clear that anyone who thinks that all cuts – no matter where they’re focused – don’t affect classrooms, doesn’t really understand the culture of schools. Note this explanation one principal provided:

“It is impossible to make cuts in a district and not have it impact teachers and students. We cut a secretary and many tasks are now falling to teachers. This takes up their precious time to prepare for students. We cut a technology integration person, and now teachers are having to spend more time researching web sites and online projects. It has further added to our already reduced office staff.”

Tornadoes of negativity

Though some principals reported that staff have rallied together due to budget cuts, most were very concerned about the negativity the cuts had generated. One commented, “I felt attacked by teachers who believed I played a role in decisions.” Another principal summed it up this way: “I had typically reasonable people telling me that they weren’t going to do their job… I feel we have taken a huge step backwards in our communication, trust, and cooperation.”

Serious stress

In response to a question about health, 70% of principals polled for our research used the term stress. One typical comment: “I don’t sleep at night. I get little exercise. I don’t take vacations because I think I shouldn’t. I don’t spend quality time with my family.” Another told us, “More stress has caused headaches, backaches, anxiety, and sleeplessness.”

The new normal for superintendents

Superintendents reported that much of the reform and innovative work underway in their districts had ceased. Cuts had forced them to focus on basic processes and nothing more. Faculty and staff were notably concerned about the future. One superintendent summed up the theme this way: “Innovation has almost ground to a halt. You can’t push forward with new innovations without the funding to see them through. Everyone has an opinion about what should be cut and that causes relationship problems.”

Dealing with disappointment

Superintendents voiced a common theme of disappointment with how significant numbers of individuals – both in the district and beyond – responded to the tough budget climate and potential cuts. In the districts, superintendents reported: “No one wants to believe we have to make cuts. Individuals are territorial and defensive.” Externally, much dismay was voiced about legislators and how they dealt with schools. One superintendent was… scathing, talking about “the complete ignorance and self-serving attitude of many legislators… who only want to get themselves re-elected …” This superintendent concluded, “I am shocked that more of our state leaders don’t demonstrate leadership at a crucial time when it is needed.”

Joyless jobs

A large number of superintendents talked about how awful the job was becoming and how retirement or other types of work are becoming very appealing. One superintendent’s comments vividly expressed this sentiment: “I am very discouraged in my job. I have always prided myself in doing everything possible to provide for the learning of all children. For the first time in my career, I cannot do this any longer.”

A brave face

Leaders often believe they must appear calm and collected during difficult times. Leaders with such a conception of their role must show they are strong. So, it’s no surprise that superintendents talked about their own behaviour in these terms. One explained, “You have to work hard not to get caught up in the emotion. You have to be the calm in the storm.”

Ways to survive

The principals and superintendents we worked with also suggested ways to cope with periods of fiscal strain. Part of the formula is dispositional, part personal, and the rest is actionoriented. First, principals and superintendents adopted a ‘cando’ attitude even in the face of difficult budgetary decisions. On one of the scales we used in our survey, both principals and superintendents reported strong responses to questions about finding their way out of a jam, solving problems and energetically pursuing their goals. A superintendent summed it up well: “I have not taken any of the concerns personally even though I have been frustrated. I try to be very positive and focus on what we can provide not what we cannot provide.”

Take care

Second, we were consistently told about the importance of taking care of yourself. For some, this meant exercising more, watching sleep patterns, eating properly and making time for family and friends. For others, it involved creating support networks so they aren’t isolated and have colleagues to interact with. But the theme was clear: find ways to take care of your health by creating work and home environments that can help you deal with the job-created stress. Some talked about the balance that must be created. A superintendent concluded, “I leave the issues of my job at the job when I leave in the evening.”

Rein in rumours

Finally, a specific set of actions were identified, including planning and maintaining clear communication and transparency throughout a budget-cutting process. One principal talked about “planning for the worst case scenario”. Others talked about bringing in interested and potentially affected parties to brainstorm possible solutions. Superintendents emphasised the importance of complete information and getting the facts straight. One said, “It is never too early to have contingency plans in place.” Everyone emphasised the importance of ongoing communication. The grapevine was described as inaccurate and potentially damaging. Rumour control is best handled with open and consistent communication. As one superintendent told us, “Communication is vital. All budget cuts affect an individual. All budget cuts affect the quality of education.” Another concluded, “For success, various entities must be involved and collaboration must occur.”

Final thoughts

Principals and superintendents are dealing with tough budgetrelated decisions. The economic outlook for the foreseeable future in most states is bleak. Tending to the health-related and emotional needs of administrators makes sense, given their crucial role in leading schools and districts. Our data suggests that school leaders are a resilient breed, but areas of concern are emerging. This appears more significant for superintendents than principals, though both groups are clearly impacted. Given the climate of growing federal and state pressure on student performance, finding ways to help leaders personally navigate difficult economic conditions seems paramount.


1. In education in the United States, a superintendent of schools, also known in many states as a chief school administrator, is a person who has executive oversight and administrative powers, usually within an educational entity or organisation. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superintendent_(education).)

2. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is a United States Act of Congress that supports standards-based education reform, based on the premise that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills. To receive federal school funding, states must give these assessments to all students at select grade levels. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Child_Left_Behind_Act.)

Additional sources:

1. Hull, J. (2010) Cutting to the Bone: How the Economic Crisis Affects Schools. Alexandria: Centre for Public Education. Available at: www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Publiceducation/ Cutting-to-the-bone-At-a-glance/Cutting-to-the-bone-Howthe- economic-crisis-affects-schools.GMEditor.html.

2. Ellerson, N.M. (2010) A Cliff Hanger: How America’s Public Schools Continue to Feel the Impact of the Economic Downturn. Alexandria: American Association of School Administrators.

3. Ginsberg, R. and Multon, K.D. (2010) “Leading in financially stressful times.” In Conley, S. and Cooper, B.S. (eds) Keeping Tomorrow’s Educational Leaders: Retaining and Sustaining the Best. Lanham: R and L Education.

4. Mai, C., Oliff, P. and Palacois, V. (2012) States Continue to Feel Recession’s Impact. Washington, D.C.: Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities. Available at: www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=711.

Category: Winter 2014

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