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.
The list reads more like demands from a Hollywood agent than from a candidate to lead the schools for an antebellum-tinged suburb of Atlanta.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
To come to work here in Clayton County, a failing school district in Georgia, former Pittsburgh superintendent John Thompson wants $275,000 in salary, a $2 million consulting budget, a Lincoln Town Car with a driver, and money to pay a personal bodyguard.
Sound a bit hefty for someone likely to pull a power lunch in a junior high cafeteria? Maybe not.
Fewer qualified candidates, rising expectations, and a near-impossible job description are creating a new breed of superintendents: Call them central office rock stars. These candidates say that, for the right price, they're willing to do an unpopular job that can take a heavy personal and professional toll to whip underperforming districts into shape.
The trend is exacerbated in struggling minority districts – many in the South – the very ones feeling the greatest pinch from new federal and state accountability laws.
"This group of superstars who are acting as basically consultants and doing all the dirty work, that's becoming more common, unfortunately," says Jim Harvey, a senior fellow at the Center for Reinventing Public Education in Seattle.
Increased accountability standards required by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act have put a growing focus on these turnaround artists, education experts say.
Some aren't concerned because they see hiring such superstars as a stop-gap measure while compensation and skill requirements adjust to new expectations for school leadership.
Others say it is forcing school boards to pay high premiums for short-lived tenures – and gains. "To come in and ask for that kind of money knowing they won't last more than a year and a half, it's nothing but a big scam – almost racketeering," says John Trotter, head of the Metro Association of Classroom Educators, a for-profit Georgia teachers union.
The pipeline is drying up even as the number of US school districts, because of consolidation, has dropped from 35,000 in 1965 to 13,000 today. Some 20 percent of school districts are actively looking for a superintendent, according to the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).
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.
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."