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Superintendents: A 'Super-Sized' Job?


Q. Is it true that it is getting harder and harder to hire and keep a good school superintendent?


Yes and no. In our extremely urban, and extremely rural, school systems, that can be a real headache. But in most districts, which are fairly suburban, there are still more qualified people who want to be superintendents than there are superintendent jobs available.


The sheer power and influence of a district or community's school superintendent is creating a call to switch the way we select them. There's a call to move over from appointing that person, as our school boards do now, to electing that person to the job. Along with the idea that it is more American to elect such an important public servant comes the idea that it shouldn't be the exclusive terrain of someone with an education degree.


Especially since a superintendent's job is so important and the person is responsible for the management of millions and millions of dollars, there's a push to open up the superintendent's job to non-educators, too. That would include business leaders in their prime, CPA's, retired military leaders, business people with MBA's, and others who may not have a teaching certificate or classroom experience, but would make or have demonstrated themselves to be excellent chief executive officers.


Think about it: your school superintendent probably handles a budget that is bigger than, or at least rivals, the size of your city government's budget. That's a lot of contracts to give out and a lot of money to be made in your community. Naturally, people in business and the professions don't want to get on the supe's bad side for fear or losing a chance at that nice, cushy, school business. It's a situation that opens itself up to fraud and corruption, which is not good. But a regular election cycle would keep that person more open, honest and accountable to the public.


The way it is now, there are just too many ways for a school leader to juke the system. Your "supe" may be responsible for the supervision of more employees than most other businesses in your town. Most districts have PR staff with budgets to spend, and that helps keep the local media in line, while other governmental agencies don't have that kind of propaganda or protection power.


Controlling school jobs is a powerful position: you can do a lot of favors for people's adult children, cousins and ne'er-do-well brothers-in-law by giving them jobs or steering contracts their way. At some point, you can call those favors back in.


Superintendents make a lot of money, too, allowing him or her to hobknob with the powers that be at the local country club and be seen at charity events with the silk-stocking set. That can make opposing them very intimidating for teachers and citizens who probably work for the supes' friends in private industry or the law, accounting, construction and other companies that do business with the district.


Oversight? Not much. Elected school-board members, by and large, are politically ambitious and know that rocking the boat will often cost a politician that job or the next one. Others on school boards are dabblers who are the supes' friends, pretty much rubber-stamping what he or she wants. For these reasons, you almost never see conflict or even split votes on school boards, which is sad.


Bottom line: supes never get anywhere near the scrutiny, oversight and criticism that your mayor, city council, county board and other government officials get, much less a corporate CEO with a board and stockholders to answer to.


Then again, consider all the things a superintendent has to manage. They can be beastly:




         Dealing with federal mandates, regulations and paperwork


         Protecting children from physical, emotional and sexual abuse


         Violence, gangs, drug and alcohol abuse in the schools




         Rising transportation, utility and insurance costs


         Board conflicts


         Union negotiations


         Sexual harassment claims


         Fire and safety issues




         Incompetent staff


         Pushy parents who don't understand the issues


         School closings and the devastation to the community that causes




         Balancing the standards, values and rights of all different kinds of families


         Student suicides


         Trying to change entrenched bureaucracies


         Trying to get bond issues passed in an iffy economy when most of the taxpayers' investment portfolios have shrunk


. . . and many more.


Would YOU like to do all that? If you would, and you think you can do a better job, and you really care about kids, then join the movement to change the way we select and keep superintendents, and prepare yourself for this important, complex job. Your country needs you!


Homework: See website of the American Association of School Administrators,, and the book, The American School Superintendent: Leading in an Age of Pressure, by Gene R. Carter and William C. Cunningham.


By Susan Darst Williams Other School Staff 03 2009


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