School and community perspective on the role of the rural school superintendent in negotiating change in school districts in financial crisis

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


Teaching and Leadership


Joseph B. Shedd


Community, Superintendent, School districts, Financial crisis, Rural education, Change negotiation

Subject Categories

Educational Administration and Supervision | Education Policy | Rural Sociology


In the early to mid 1990's public school districts in Upstate New York faced serious financial challenges to the stability of the educational process. The state was losing its industrial manufacturing base to southern states. The large dairy business in Upstate New York was on a decline with many small, family run dairy farms going out of business. As the tax base in these communities declined, the burden for supporting education fell more heavily upon the shoulders of the local taxpayer.

This dissertation is a multi-site case study of a successful attempt of three, small rural school districts in Upstate New York to recover from a financial crisis that each experienced in addition to the general difficult financial times plaguing schools across the state. This study describes the recovery effort of these three districts from the perspective of the community, school staff, and the three superintendents who were involved in this recovery effort. I conducted 51 in-depth interviews across the three districts with members of the community and school staff. I engaged in content analysis of written documentation such as newspaper articles, policy and procedure manuals, board minutes, and district financial records to corroborate or refute verbalized perspectives.

The purpose of this study was to examine the role of the rural school superintendent in negotiating the change necessary to turn around these financially troubled schools. The study investigates the role of the rural superintendent by analyzing the leadership strategies that emerge from the data that informants view as key to the recovery effort. Each district faced a major financial crisis with double digit increases in the local tax levy. Each district was on the brink of disaster as educational programs were cut and staff downsizing looming on the horizon.

The three rural school studied--Milltown, Springville, and Lakeview--experienced a successful recovery effort that was brought about by a confluence of external and internal circumstances which facilitated the adjustments. Use of a multi-frame approach to negotiating change was evident from the perspective of the community and school staff in turning around the fate of these schools. The process and role of the rural school superintendent may provide some helpful ideas for other rural school districts facing similar circumstances. The importance of strong leadership on the part of the superintendent, of a sense of urgency, collaboration among school staff and community, grounding changes in school and community history and culture, and adjustments to traditional structures of governance practices are among the elements which helped to negotiate change in these school districts.


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