How Leadership Differs Between Building and District Leaders

Dr. Ellen Mauer
Dr. Ellen Mauer
Elementary school principal; Ph.D. in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies
Someone touching the top block that reads ‘leadership’ on a stack of wooden blocks.

General vs. Specialized

When discussing differences in building and district leadership, it is noted that building roles are typically those of principal/assistant principal while district level positions run from superintendent/assistant superintendent to more specialized roles such as curriculum/instruction director, special services director, bilingual director, business/finance manager, and human resource manager. The larger the district, the more district-level positions there will be. The roles of superintendent, principal, assistant superintendent, and assistant principal are more generalized in nature and those jobs require the administrator to have oversight of every program in their building or district.

The specialized roles at the district level are not generalized and the person in that role has a very specific role in being responsible for their area in every building district wide. For example, a business manager is responsible for all money flowing into and out of the district. They will divide money between district departments and school buildings in specific funds. They report to the superintendent and board. A principal will get just the money allocated to their building and divide that between different departments within their building and is responsible for reporting back to the business manager and superintendent. The principal does not get involved in what is happening in other buildings; that is left to the business manager and superintendent.

Duties and Accountability

The duties of the generalized roles are very similar in nature. They are mostly comprised of oversight to all departments as well as generalized hiring to fill all roles. The scope differs in size as a school building is smaller than a school district. The superintendent would fill all district level positions as well as openings for principals while the principal would fill all roles within their building. The superintendent is responsible for the evaluations of those district-level positions and principals. The principal is responsible for the evaluation of all personnel in their school building. They may share some of these duties with properly certified individuals.

The specialized roles have duties that are specifically within the realm of their title. For example, a curriculum/instruction director would be responsible for what the curriculum was comprised of, the review cycle of all curriculum, and getting the correct materials to the correct buildings. They would be concerned about making sure the curriculum was being used correctly in each school and that the teachers were trained in its use. They would not be involved in evaluating personnel in school buildings. That is left to the principal.

Types of Communication to Stakeholders

Communication is varied at the building and district levels. At the district level, there may be a director of communications if the district is large. If it is smaller, the superintendent may serve in this role. There is usually a district newsletter that goes out regularly to parents. Another one would go out to the entire community, not just parents. All taxpayers are considered stakeholders in the district, and a county-wide mailer can help to bring them up to speed about what the district is doing with their tax dollars.

The district communications are in social media as well. Various social media accounts are monitored by district personnel to give news and interact with stakeholders. Surveys may be done from time to time. A district website is maintained. The district may also have a staff newsletter that shares news from different buildings for the employees. Additionally, the board of education meetings may be televised for the public to view as another way for the public to know what is happening.

At the building level, the communication will look different. The principal is usually in charge of what goes out to stakeholders. There may be a school newsletter giving parents the news of what goes on weekly or monthly. Their school section of the larger district website must be maintained. Some school administrators have social media accounts highlighting aspects of the news of the building. Building leaders do not typically engage with the greater community. They usually stick to parents. The building administration will encourage or require teachers to send newsletters to parents and/or maintain classroom websites.

One of the most important items that a district leader will communicate to all stakeholders is the strategic plan for the district. This is a three or five-year plan listing the objectives/goals that the stakeholders have created and that the board approves for implementation. Greater community members, parents, employees, students, and board members typically participate in a strategic planning process resulting in this multi-year plan for the superintendent to implement. They will communicate progress regularly.

A building leader, on the other hand, is responsible for helping to create and maintain a school improvement plan. The school improvement plan should dovetail from the strategic plan. It is created by a building-level committee of stakeholders and implemented by the building leadership. Progress is communicated to the superintendent and board of education.

Other Areas of Difference

A district leader will typically have a twelve-month contract and be paid more than a building leader. A building leader may have a ten or eleven-month contract. Those hours will be different. The building leader will take vacation on the schedule of the school children while the district leader may choose to take vacation at other times of the year and are not typically tied to a school building type of schedule.

On a final note, the size of the district is very important to the differences between a district and building level leader. Very small districts will have overlap of positions and building leaders may take on district level responsibilities simply because there is not a large central office staff. A larger district will have many specialized positions, and the building-level leader will simply be in charge of the building. One is not necessarily better or worse than another; they are just different. Personal preference will enter into what the individual prefers for their employment.

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