How one fearless superintendent is elevating education outside her district

Kimberly Rizzo Saunders
Kimberly Rizzo Saunders

Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders is not waiting for someone else to solve one of her district’s biggest problems: Her state, New Hampshire, remains near the bottom of the list for per-pupil funding despite its residents earning among the highest per-capita incomes in the country.

Rizzo, leader of the ConVal School District, and 17 other superintendents have been aggressively lobbying state leaders to meet their responsibilities to fund K12 education adequately. New Hampshire provided about $4,100 per pupil in 2023 but the group of leaders used the state’s formula to show that the number should be $9,900—and that was a conservative estimate, Saunders noted.

A state superior court judge agreed with the group—to a degree—deciding that adequate per-pupil funding should be around $7,500.Without adequate funding, she fears that the state is heading toward a K12 system in which the only students who attend public schools are those who can’t afford an alternative.

“Public education is the civil rights issue of our time,” says Saunders, New Hampshire’s 2024 Superintendent of the Year. “We have individuals and groups trying to convert public dollars into private education, so you’re getting to a system where public education is at the bare minimum.”

Saunders has spent a lot of time on the phone, rallying her fellow superintendents around the pre-pupil funding cause. She has raised questions of equity, including how more rural districts grapple with higher transportation costs that take funding away from instruction and salaries.

If the underfunding continues, communities will have a much harder time refreshing their workforces and developing engaged citizens. “While we’re born free in theory, we learn to be free as we’re educated,” she contends. “Public schools don’t just provide an education—they create the public that is the foundation of a democratic system.”

Closing the gender gap

Another way Saunders is working to elevate education in New Hampshire is by encouraging more women to aspire to K12 leadership. The big anomaly in education is, of course, that most entry-level positions are held by women but a majority of the superintendents are men.

Female educators tend to rise more slowly through the ranks, getting promotions step-by-step, i.e. from assistant principal to principal to central office. Male administrators, meanwhile, are more likely to have opportunities to make bigger leaps to the superintendency.

What aspiring female leaders need most are mentors who can help them strike a work-life balance and guide them in negotiations once they are in line for a leadership position. With that level of backing, female administrators can build collaborative leadership teams in their districts, she attests.

“I’m working with colleagues to bring to the forefront why that happens—why women are saying, ‘No, that’s not a position I’m going to pursue’ or not believing that they have the leadership capacity to do that position,” she concludes, noting that, in New Hampshire, about a third of the superintendents are female, compared to about 25% nationwide.

Matthew Zalaznick
Matthew Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.