Getting school boards and superintendents to pull together

The risk for public outcry and disruption was certainly there: Minneapolis school superintendent Richard Green was putting together a plan to close one-quarter of the city's schools. But according to Dr. Green, a major long-range plan for the city schools which was begun in 1982, including the school closings, has gone smoothly. The main reason, he says, is that he and the school board went before the public as a ``united front,'' presenting one plan they considered sound for meeting the educational needs of the city's schoolchildren.

``Together we made a public statement on what needed to be done,'' says Dr. Green, showing the city that they had worked ``to reduce any differences between me and the board.''

Few local-government actions are more divisive and controversial than school closings. But the Minneapolis example indicates that cooperation and singularity of purpose on the part of the school superintendent and school board can go a long way in defusing such issues.

Other cities are replacing factionalism with cooperation as they work to improve their schools. And because of this and other things, superintendents in a number of the country's big-city school systems are feeling a new optimism about the job before them.

Dr. Green, who is incoming president of the large-city superintendents group of the American Association of School Administrators, says he believes such things as the education reform movement, the active interest of business in public education, and increased local cooperation are building to make school systems torn by internecine battles ``the sad exception, rather than the rule.''

Other big-city superintendents and education observers agree. They note, for example, that desegregation, almost always a divisive issue, is no longer the consuming topic it was in the '70s in many major cities. Instead, they say, such issues as effectiveness and results have taken center stage. And even if approaches differ, such issues tend by their nature to unite rather than divide.

According to Alonzo Crim, superintendent of the Atlanta schools for the past 12 years and a recognized dean among big-city school administrators, a new ``spirit of co-operation'' among public officials at all levels, educators, and the public is putting a healthy emphasis on education. ``There is a refreshing perception that all children will learn,'' Dr. Crim says. ``I don't know if you realize it, but that's a remarkable accomplishment.''

Crim says that ``one of the most important conditions for running a system well is a commitment to the children on the part of the board of education.'' He notes that during his time in Atlanta not one board member has gone on to another political office, and that most members have remained on the board for more than one term.

In Minneapolis, Superintendent Green says a ``strong support network'' -- made up of business leaders, local educators, and parents -- is ``making the difference.'' And when difficulties do arise between board members and the superintendent, Green says, there should be provisions for third-party intervention, in the form of mediation, or just for cooling-off periods.

In Boston, superintendent Robert Spillane says he finds it ``exciting'' that ``so many states have put education on their front burner.'' He agrees with other superintendents that education reforms put additional pressures on school administrators, but he says it's the kind of ``positive pressure'' that energizes many administrators drawn to big cities. Dr. Spillane says better urban schools and improvements in administrators' working conditions ``are not mutually exclusive.''

Other educators, disappointed by what they consider the failure of recent education reports to take up the role of administrators in any depth, say they nevertheless see signs that the people who run the schools will be getting more of the kind of assistance they need.

Richard Rossmiller, a specialist in school administration at the University of Wisconsin, says he sees a number of positive signs concerning mid-career development for district administrators. For one thing, he says, more districts are either offering or requiring participation in professional-skills improvement and stress management.

In addition, several states are moving in this direction. Louisiana has established an ``academy'' for administrative development, and Wisconsin is considering such a move. Others have started regular summer programs. Professor Rossmiller says these developments support his contention that, ``in the coming years, administrators will receive as much attention as teachers and the teaching profession are now getting.''

The hope among educators is that any new attention given to school administration will include a reevaluation of the importance of a superintendent in setting a district's tone and determining how a community feels about its schools. Dr. Green, a product of the Minneapolis schools, says having a longstanding knowledge of the city's schools and neighborhoods has been a ``tremendous asset.'' But most important, he says, is that, ``whether it's an insider or an outsider, you bring in the right person at the right time.''

As an example of this, Green points to Dr. Spillane, who left Albany, N.Y., in 1981, where he was a state deputy commissioner of education, to take the reins of Boston's politicized, disrupted school system. And in Spillane's eyes, an outsider was something the Boston schools needed. Arriving without any ``baggage'' or obligations, Spillane says he had more leeway and support needed to make tough decisions. He cites the fact that he was able to change 60 of 123 principals shortly after he took the job as ``one of my main strengths.''

The key to cooperation, says Spillane, is basic, although not always simple to achieve: ``Have everyone focus on common goals.'' The superintendent should help referee conflicting interests by emphasizing the issues everyone agrees on. ``I think that's what we've been able to do with the school committee here,'' he adds.

There is little likelihood that the job of school superintendent, especially in large cities, will ever be much less of a political post than it is now. As Richard Green says, ``It's been that way for a long time, and I don't anticipate it changing now.'' Perhaps because of this, one answer to the pressures superintendents face may lie in what Professor Rossmiller offers: ``Realize that you can't anticipate a long tenure, and that, in the long run, you'll only win if you play it as an educator. You don't do anything for the schools by catering to the interest groups.''

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