Rise of the 'rock star' school superintendent
No Child Left Behind has created a demand for school administrators who can take the pressure, and some 20 percent of school districts are now seeking superintendents because of a shortage.
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In 1990, a typical opening for a superintendent would bring in about 250 applications, says Richard Greene, a former superintendent leading the search in Clayton County. "Today, if you get 30 or 40 it's phenomenal," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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As a result, average salaries have increased from about $110,000 10 years ago to more than $200,000 a year today. Total compensation packages for larger districts are in the $325,000 range. Today, big-city superintendents stay an average of 18 months, says Dr. Greene of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates in Glenview, Ill. For suburban districts, average tenure hovers around three years, he says.
Superintendents often work 80-hour weeks and routinely have to juggle politics, policy, and management without generating negative headlines. With many capable bureaucrats choosing not to apply, short-term turnaround specialists are finding a niche, experts say.
While major universities have whittled down their superintendency programs, new programs have emerged. The Broad Academy in Los Angeles, which is five years old, specializes in turning business executives and retired military officers into urban school leaders. One graduate, retired Navy Rear Adm. Barbara McGann, is now superintendent for the Marlborough, Mass., school district.
Successful 'rock star' superintendents, including Rudy Crew of Miami-Dade in Florida and Joe Hairston in Baltimore, show that the right fit can be helpful for improving academic performance and reducing discipline problems, experts say. Mr. Crew was named superintendent of the year in 2007 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
"If you have a large, low-performing bureaucracy, bringing in outsiders can be an effective way to get a clearer view of what's working and what isn't," says Robert Gordon of the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy think tank in Washington.
Indeed, a passion for helping kids still motivates even demanding candidates like Mr. Thompson, experts say. Often the problem is overly politicized school boards, critics say, where children's educational needs don't appear to be a priority.
That's the case in Clayton County, teachers say, where many of 53,000 black and Latino students now enrolled have simply given up on school.
The county has to correct nine major mandates by Sept 1., or it will become the first US school district since the 1960s to have its accreditation pulled, a signal to parents and colleges that the district is not adequately educating its students.
The board is set to vote this week on whether to hire Thompson or former Fresno, Calif., superintendent Santiago Wood for "corrective superintendent." The post is expected to lay the groundwork for a long-term candidate. SACS president Mark Elgart suggested last week, however, that neither of the candidates would be a good fit for Clayton County.
After witnessing how the county's failing schools have affected his community, resident Willis Swint has his own suggestion. "Instead of giving perks to big-shots from the national stage to come here, they should be thinking about giving more perks to our students," he says.