You're Leaving? Sustainability and Succession in Charter Schools

Center for Reinventing Public Education
Christine Campbell
November 2010

Kudos to CRPE for its new report (from its National Charter School Research Project) shedding much needed light on an issue critical to the long-term sustainability of charter schools, yet rarely addressed: succession planning. As an authorizer of charter schools, Fordham has seen firsthand how acutely a change in leadership can affect the success or failure of a charter school.

Succession planning isn’t at the forefront of many board agendas, yet it’s just as crucial to a charter school’s viability as other issues that typically garner lots of attention (e.g., academics, fundraising, facilities, and budgets). This report finds a 20 percent turnover rate over two years among the 24 schools it studied. Despite significant turnover, 14 of the 24 schools studied had no succession plan at all. Of the 10 schools that purported to have a plan in place, only five were considered substantive. 

More important than the numbers, though, are the questions that charter school governing boards and school leaders should consider in order to strengthen their organizations. For example, do boards with strong school founders recognize organizational weaknesses/skills the founder doesn’t have? Are the school leader and board - and management company, for that matter - clear on whose responsibility the succession plan is? (It’s the governing board’s responsibility.) Does the school have the bench strength and training capabilities to produce a new leader from within, or does the leader need to come from outside? And, does the new leader need to perform the exact functions as the former leader, or has the school organization changed such that new duties associated with the change in leadership are merited?

The report points out that succession plans need not be complex, and that strong plans:

  • Understand where the school is headed, as well as the school’s strengths and weaknesses;
  • Account for emergency and longer term circumstances;
  • Outline when/how to communicate with staff and train them when the time is right (or ensure job descriptions for outside candidates are updated and fully representative of the duties of the position); and,
  • Clarify that final decisions rest with, and are the responsibility of, the school’s board. 

Finally, the report recommends that authorizers make school succession planning part of the charter school application and renewal process. This report is a must read for charter school practitioners -- boards, school leaders, management companies, and authorizers alike.

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