Ideas for Steering A Stable Course

SHORT-TERM superintendents often translate to ineffective, inefficient school systems. Throughout the United States, the big-city districts that can claim the most success have two common factors: strong, stable leadership in both the superintendency and the school board and a community-wide commitment to clear goals, with a blueprint for achieving them. Cities where these elements exist, such as Pittsburgh and San Diego, make progress: Test scores improve; dropout rates decline; community involvement in the schools increases.

``There is a lot to be said for stability and continuity of leadership in institutionalizing change,'' says Tom Payzant, who has been superintendent in San Diego for nine years. ``It just takes a long, long time to get what is fundamentally a very conservative institution - school districts - to reform.''

In some cases, people use school-board positions as steppingstones to political careers. And district elections rather than citywide elections make board positions more susceptible to special-interest politics. A few cities - such as Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia - have appointed school boards. Boston is currently considering a change from its 13-member elected board to a seven-member board appointed by the mayor. But appointed boards do not guarantee a reduction of politics, many say .

Although there are no formulas for success, those experienced in the school-governance process offer these guidelines for fostering stability:

* School boards should be realistic and unambiguous in drafting expectations and goals for superintendents.

* A strategic plan for improving the district should have input from all segments of the community before being adopted. ``Then regardless of what happens to the change of board members or change of administration, you have a plan that's driving the district,'' says Richard Miller of the American Association of School Administrators.

* The role of boards and superintendents should be clearly defined and constantly considered. ``There is a lot of glibness in the statements about boards making policy and superintendents administering it,'' Mr. Payzant says. ``On the extremes that's accurate, but the difficulty comes in the middle where those two things come together.''

* Smaller boards are often preferable to large ones. ``There is better opportunity to build good trust and open communication with smaller boards,'' says Payzant, who has worked with boards ranging from five to nine members.

Some question whether the current system of governing urban schools through representative democracy will continue. A few school districts, such as those in Jersey City, N.J., and Little Rock, Ark., already have replaced boards and superintendents with a single executive.

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