Big City School Superintendents Are Posting High Dropout Rate

IT may be the only job in New York with a higher turnover rate than manager of the Yankees. It is chancellor of the city's public schools - a post that has been filled by six different people in the past 11 years.

The abrupt resignation last week of the latest, Ramon Cortines, underscores how complex and politically sensitive the job of urban superintendent has become in America in an era of fiscal austerity.

With an average job tenure of three years, the "supers" of big-city schools are now leaving their jobs more often than happens in nearly any other major profession. The departure of Mr. Cortines, who has been feuding for months with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), comes after only two years of trying to improve the nation's largest school system.

This year, superintendents in Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston have resigned or left under fire.

Baltimore's superintendent, Stuart Berger, has indicated he is ready to leave after facing battles and criticism. Massachusetts now has a 20 percent turnover rate in school chiefs, compared with 12 percent in the 1980s.

Educators say high expectations are partly to blame for the turnover.

Superintendants often take over school districts that have below-average performance. A high percentage of the students are poor or recent immigrants. English is often a second language. Parents expect the superintendents to turn around the schools quickly.

"The superintendent has dumped on himself all manner of expectations - many of them unreal," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a Washington, D.C., coalition of 50 urban school systems.

Or, as happened with Cortines, a superintendent fails to navigate the political booby traps during a time of shrinking resources.

After months of fighting with Mr. Giuliani, Cortines tendered his resignation. The issue of the moment was school violence: The mayor wanted the New York City Police Department to be responsible for school safety instead of the Board of Education's own security patrols.

Beyond security

But there is reason to believe that the dispute went beyond the issue of security, says Sy Fliegel, a senior fellow at the Center for Educational Innovation in New York.

"He [Giuliani] has a major budget crisis," explains Mr. Fliegel. At a time when the mayor was looking for massive budget cuts, Giuliani was convinced that Cortines was not doing enough to streamline the Board of Education or cut waste.

Giuliani has also expressed frustration over his lack of control of the city's public school system. He has only two representatives on the seven-person board that runs the district of 1 million children.

But the mayor does control the Board's finances through the budget process. In the face of public demonstrations outside City Hall, Giuliani has made some small cuts in the education budget, which is about $7.3 billion this year.

He complains that he has very little control over the education process, but that parents hold him responsible when they go to the polls. For this reason, Giuliani said on Friday, the next chancellor should be selected jointly by the Board of Education and himself.

Yet former Mayor Ed Koch (D) believes Guiliani has hurt himself by pressuring Cortines. "Rudy has shot himself in the foot politically and damaged the education of the children in this town," Mr. Koch says.

It will become difficult to attract a first-rate superintendent, Koch says, despite the $195,000 salary (plus free use of a house). "Why would they come here knowing the mayor is going to try to break them and run the system?" asks the former mayor.

Supers in other cities

Giuliani is not alone in waging war over control of the school board. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry believes the independence of the school board should be reexamined. Today, the D.C. Council is scheduled to hold hearings on bills to either diminish the board's power or abolish it altogether. Congress may also get involved.

Such battles don't help the education process, argues Mr. Casserly, since the districts lose their sense of continuity. "When there is stability there is no need to reorganize each time," he says.

During his brief tenure, Cortines generally received high marks. He started work at 6 a.m. and worked into the night. He visited more schools than most recent superintendents have. He made himself available to teachers and parents. Last week, Cortines announced that elementary schools in all 32 school districts had raised reading and math scores.

"He was interested in teaching and learning," says Fliegel, who adds "the big irony is that philosophically he was closer to the mayor than any other chancellor."

In fact, Koch believes that whomever the Board of Education picks as the next chancellor should be "someone with the qualities of Cortines - he was wonderful."

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