OWATONNA — Jeff Elstad, superintendent of Owatonna Public Schools, was installed as president-elect of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators June 21.
“I’m very honored to be president-elect,” Elstad said. The MASA is filled with “great professionals who are very focused on the education of our children.”
His election starts a three-year commitment, one as president-elect, one as president, and one as past president. The MASA’s 2019-2020 president is David Law, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin school district, and the past president is Deb Henton, superintendent of North Branch Area Schools.
Elstad, who has been in the MASA for nearly a decade, was nominated by his peers, agreed to be a candidate, then was elected to his role, he said. He’ll be president in 2020-2021 and then past president for 2021-2022.
The MASA has long benefited from “strong leadership,” and “I, personally, have no doubt Jeff will do an outstanding job representing not only himself, but the MASA, at the state and national level,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the MASA. “We’re very excited for him to help move our organization forward.”
As president-elect, he will help ensure the MASA’s subcommittees run smoothly and have optimal leaders, then take recommendations from those subcommittees to the board of directors, which meets quarterly, Elstad said. As president next year, he’ll “be more of a decision-maker” and have a front-facing role in aspects like lobbying.
“I think he will do a fantastic job,” at least in part due to his communication abilities, Amoroso said. “He constantly advocates for students, and that is so important.”
Elstad, who joined the MASA when he became Byron’s superintendent, was likely selected for these leadership positions because he’s built an expansive network of superintendent relationships, and “I think they would say I’ve supported them,” he said. In addition, “I’m a good team player and collaborative in nature.”
Members of the MASA have “a lot of confidence” in Elstad, because they’ve seen the way he “works with others to get things done” in various capacities, including as chairman of the executive development committee, Amoroso said. He’s “outstanding,” with a “talent for leadership,” and the MASA is “very fortunate” to have him in leadership.
The MASA, which is comprised of nearly 700 superintendents and central office administrators from districts across the state, is “a strong, collegial organization” that concentrates on lobbying for education, as well as providing plenty of professional development for its members, Elstad said. The annual spring and fall conferences, for example, are devoted almost solely to professional development.
That’s especially critical due to the lack of individuals going into superintendent tracks “as compared to how many positions there are open,” Elstad said. In Minnesota, there were more than 50 superintendent positions open this past year, and some still haven’t been filled.
Nationally, the average tenure for a superintendent in a district is only 2.5 years, and “that is really concerning,” because school boards, teachers and staff, and communities want consistency at the top, he said. Candidate pools aren’t as deep as they once were, as districts that used to receive 15-20 applications for superintendent spots now might only get a handful.
Through support from Sourcewell, formerly the National Joint Powers Alliance, and the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the MASA began offering a program for aspiring superintendents in 2016, and several members of that initial class are already in superintendent positions, Amoroso said. In addition, the MASA provides a support program for new superintendents, Great Start, a “cohort model” with five sessions over the course of a year, and every new member of the MASA is given a mentor.
Individuals are less likely to pursue superintendent positions because of various “pressures” placed on superintendents, Elstad posited. Superintendents are “the bottom line” in school districts, and they “have to make difficult decisions not everyone will agree with,” from whether or not to cancel classes during inclement weather, to staffing reductions, to budgetary allotments, so “you have to have a thick skin.”
As trust in government, generally, has plummeted among the public, school administrators have been caught in that pernicious whirlwind, Elstad asserted. Though “people want continuity and consistency,” they all too often “don’t support superintendent decisions,” at times reacting “emotionally” rather than “logically.”
“People start assigning motives,” he said. “It can be hard for them to separate the professional from the personal.”
Even school boards sometimes fail to back their superintendents, but Elstad is grateful that’s never been an issue for him in Owatonna, he said. “I’m very fortunate here.”
The MASA “tries to build confidence” with administrators to go into superintendent roles, as well as supporting current superintendents, he said. Elstad, for example, has “a dozen” superintendents he knows through MASA he can call and receive a response from “within five minutes” when he needs advice or other assistance — and he’s a similar resource for them — because “everyone has been in those same shoes at some point.”
As MASA attempts to build a pipeline of superintendents, the organization is especially focused on women and minorities, because superintendent positions remain predominantly filled by white males, he said. Equity, in all aspects of education, is “a passion” of Elstad’s, and he’ll continue to raise his voice over the next few years he plays a leading part in MASA, because “we need an understanding of how education needs to embrace different races and cultures.”
He also favors relaxing some licensure requirements in order to attract more individuals to teaching and retain quality educators. In the same way there’s a lack of superintendent candidates across the country, America is also in the midst of a teacher shortage.
Elstad acknowledges it’s paramount to “protect the integrity of what it means to be a teacher,” but he believes there are “so many barriers in the way” for prospective and current teachers.
“My fear is people look at education as a fallback career, and it’s vitally important we have the best people teaching our kids,” because teachers can have profound impact on students, “good or bad,” he said. As a leader in the MASA, he’ll consistently ask, “How can we encourage people to become teachers and bring value to teaching?”