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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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That's because principals and central office staff who would typically fill the superintendent job say accountability standards and politicized school boards mean it's not worth the hassle.

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Minority districts that want to hire a black or Hispanic superintendent are in even worse straits: The number of educators coming out of black colleges has dropped by 70 percent in the past 20 years, according to the National Association of Black Educators in Washington.

"Leadership always is symptomatic, a warning sign of what's happening at deeper and more fundamental levels," says Walter Fluker, executive director of the Leadership Center at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

For school boards, the search for a competent bureaucrat has turned into a quest for a savior. "A lot of districts are looking for a person on a white horse, which is unfortunate because most people don't ride white horses," says former superintendent Paul Houston, director of the AASA in Arlington, Va. "The odds of getting the right fit has gone way down.... Competition is fierce for these people."

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.

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.

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