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.

patrik jonsson
Frustrated: Willis and Beverly Swint, Clayton County residents, say perks should go to students, not to school administrators.
Rich Clabaugh

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.

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."

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.

While major universities have whittled down their superintendency programs, new programs have emerged. The Broad Academy in Los Angeles, which is five years old, specializes in turning business executives and retired military officers into urban school leaders. One graduate, retired Navy Rear Adm. Barbara McGann, is now superintendent for the Marlborough, Mass., school district.

Successful 'rock star' superintendents, including Rudy Crew of Miami-Dade in Florida and Joe Hairston in Baltimore, show that the right fit can be helpful for improving academic performance and reducing discipline problems, experts say. Mr. Crew was named superintendent of the year in 2007 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

"If you have a large, low-performing bureaucracy, bringing in outsiders can be an effective way to get a clearer view of what's working and what isn't," says Robert Gordon of the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy think tank in Washington.

Indeed, a passion for helping kids still motivates even demanding candidates like Mr. Thompson, experts say. Often the problem is overly politicized school boards, critics say, where children's educational needs don't appear to be a priority.

That's the case in Clayton County, teachers say, where many of 53,000 black and Latino students now enrolled have simply given up on school.

The county has to correct nine major mandates by Sept 1., or it will become the first US school district since the 1960s to have its accreditation pulled, a signal to parents and colleges that the district is not adequately educating its students.

The board is set to vote this week on whether to hire Thompson or former Fresno, Calif., superintendent Santiago Wood for "corrective superintendent." The post is expected to lay the groundwork for a long-term candidate. SACS president Mark Elgart suggested last week, however, that neither of the candidates would be a good fit for Clayton County.

After witnessing how the county's failing schools have affected his community, resident Willis Swint has his own suggestion. "Instead of giving perks to big-shots from the national stage to come here, they should be thinking about giving more perks to our students," he says.

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