The One Thing You Need to Know About School District Org Charts


Marissa Meyer took over Yahoo! and inherited a company (1) with name recognition (2) that was being out-performed by competitors yet (3) had large amounts of revenue for the foreseeable future and (4) held very valuable assets [a stake in Alibaba].

John Danner was tweeting about this last week and it made me think about urban school superintendents.

Your average urban superintendent inherits an organization with (1) name recognition(2) that is being out-performed by competitors [see CREDO] (3) but will have enormous revenue for the foreseeable future [even with declining market share most will serve tens of thousands of students for years] (4) and holds very valuable assets [facilities].


In such situations, a CEO must answer a question: is this a turnaround job or a transition job?

I imagine Marissa Meyer thought she was taking a turnaround job (make Yahoo! a top tech company). It is likely she will be executing a transition job (figure out how to build a profitable wind down company).


I belive that the urban superintendent job is a transition job: the goal is to transform an institution that does one thing (operate schools) to another thing (regulate non-profit school providers).

I believe that superintendents who execute this transition well will be the pioneers who reinvent public education and increase educational opportunity.


The job is not an easy one: it is a wicked storm of  declining enrollment, under-utilized facilities, and very difficult politics.

Yet, some superintendents, like John White and Patrick Dobard in New Orleans, have made the transition while increasing achievement and equity for all students.




When I look at org charts of school districts I look for one thing: is there a chief portfolio officer and, if there is, who does this officer report to.

Superintendents who are focused on turnaround rather than transition do not have a chief portfolio officer. Generally, they have a charter office, an office that is often buried in the bureaucracy.

Superintendents who are either (1) torn about which direction to head or (2) inherit senior chief academic officers – create a team of rivals; the CAO and the CPO both sit in the cabinet and report directly to the superintendent.

The CAO oversees the directly operated schools and the CPO oversees the charter and innovation schools. Usually, they vie for resources and status.

Superintendents who are deeply committed to transitioning to a new institutional mission have the CAO report into the CPO.

What are the implications of this structure?

First, the CAO is positioned as a leader of a set of schools (which happen to be run by the district) that fall under the oversight of the CPO (whose job it is to expand what’s working and transform what’s not) – so the district operated schools are less of a privileged provider and are more akin to an internal charter management organization.

Second, and most importatly, it signals to the staff that thoughtfully regulating all public schools, rather than school operation, is the ultimate responsibility of government.

Third, it sets forth clearly succession planning. The CPO, and not the CAO, should be groomed to be the next superintendent.

The CPO and the CAO should not be rivals.

The CAO should be directly accountable to the CPO for the performance of her schools.


In most places, transitioning to the urban school system of the future will not happen overnight.

In the near-term, the district will still be operating schools, and it has a duty to this well.

But it all has a duty to build a structure that can fairly and effectively govern a portfolio of non-profit schools.

This requires a thoughtful transition of mission, strategy, and values.

It also requires a change in organizational structure.

Sooner rather than later, the CAO should report to the CPO.

2 thoughts on “The One Thing You Need to Know About School District Org Charts

  1. Pingback: Future rivalries: the platform vs. the chief academic officer | relinquishment

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