History of the District Superintendency
District Superintendents came into existence through an amendment to Article 14 of the Education Law. In 1910, the New York State Legislature provided for the establishment of a system of Supervisory Districts throughout the State to ensure effective management and supervision of the public schools. A Supervisory District is a territorial subdivision of the State, defining the jurisdiction of the District Superintendent of Schools. The original number of Supervisory Districts was set at 208, each to be administered by a District Superintendent.
Prior to this there were 113 school commissioner districts in New York State, each with a school commissioner elected for a three-year term. Under the school commissioner system, anyone who could secure nomination from one of the political parties could run for the office, regardless of experience or qualifications for the position. The change from an elective to an appointive office with specific qualifications for employment was designed to: provide better supervision of the teaching in country schools, raise the standards of secondary schools, enforce more completely the compulsory attendance and child labor laws and to place the office on a higher professional plane.
In 1933, the Legislature adopted a statute to reduce the number of Supervisory Districts. Thereafter, whenever there was a District Superintendent vacancy, the Commissioner of Education was required to determine if the educational interests of the area could be adequately served by combining the vacant office with an adjacent Supervisory District. This led to a reduction in the number of Supervisory Districts to 183 by 1943.
Changes in district organization and consolidation of school districts has resulted in an increased capacity for local autonomy, affecting the function of District Superintendent. From a high of over 11,000 school districts, district reorganization and consolidation has reduced this number to the current 704 districts. Likewise, the number of District Superintendents has been reduced significantly from 208 to the current 37. The creation in 1948 of the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to provide educational services at the supervisory district level further refined the role of the District Superintendent. As larger districts and small city districts became participants in the components of BOCES during the 1960’s, the role of the District Superintendent was strengthened, both as a field representative of the Commissioner and as an educational leader at the local level.
The changes in the functioning of the District Superintendents have been significant, yet the statutory basis for the responsibilities has remained constant since 1948, with many of the provisions dating back to the 1930s, and some even to 1910. The statutes provide at least three roles in the responsibility and authority of the office. These are: (1) carrying out administrative and supervisory activities with school districts; (2) performing as executive officer of the BOCES; and (3) performing duties which are assigned by the Commissioner of Education.
These three roles combine to require a range of leadership skills for District Superintendents. These include:
- Performing executive and judicial functions as specified by statute and/or the Commissioner regarding assigned territory and/or the districts within the geographic area.
- Consulting with Boards of Education and Chief School Officers of districts within their geographic areas.
- Advocating for the positions of school districts to the Commissioner and other State agencies.
- Coordinating and acting as liaison between the public educational community and other regional based agencies in the area, so that common plans and operations mesh and that the educational program managers of the area can most effectively avail themselves of resources within the region.
- Communicating, serving as the link in a two-way communications network between the Commissioner and local district officials to speed the flow of information, assist in the clarification and resolution of issues, collect, and maintain data and carry out other communicative functions as may become appropriate.
The relationship among the State Education Department, BOCES, and local districts requires District Superintendents to be facilitators of educational concepts to meet the new or unique needs of each supervisory district. District Superintendents use their statutory powers, assigned duties, leadership abilities, and intermediate level resources to help local districts realize needed programs and services. Future roles for this office will include leadership for needed shared services and the quest for excellence as reflected in the increased standards for students and schools. The opportunity to bring the best ideas and practices to schools rests squarely on the District Superintendents, to combine the need to save costs while not sacrificing quality in educational programs.