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Requiem for the Superintendency

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Public education is the family business in my family. In the past, at family gatherings we would fantasize about escaping the governance problems in school districts and taking over, as a family, the little school on the beach island. We had one problem, however: We were top heavy; we were three teachers and three superintendents. Today, for the first time in over 40 years, there are no superintendents in my family: My father retired; my husband quit; and my brother was murdered.

A few weeks before Jim died, he and I had a long talk on the deck of the beach house. He was approaching 20 years in the superintendency and was considering getting out. "Now that I've figured out how to do this job, I don't want to do it,'' he said. He told of board problems and about investigating a university teaching job only to be told that he'd have to start out as a beginner because, as the chairman of the department told him, he had "no experience.''

He shook his head and went on to analyze his feelings. "Could it be,'' he said, "that the better a superintendent does the job, the more likely he is to have trouble with his board?'' Since Jim's death, I've given a lot of thought to his words and to what I know about the superintendency, about school boards, and about educational reform. I've realized that much of the experience of working superintendents has not made it into the educational-administration literature nor into classwork in administrator-training programs.

I've thought about the group of educational administrators that came to Jim's memorial service--all smart and knowledgeable, good people. I've thought about the many other superintendents I have known and about their careers. Some had been fired by their boards, all had worried about being fired, more than one may have prayed to be fired. Many have moved more often than they and their families would have preferred; few have retired with the honor they deserved.

It seems to me that my educator brother was missing an important point--a point very important to the problems in schools today and to any measurement of successful school district leadership. Superintendents may be hired to make schools better and many do; Jim did. Regardless of educational progress in the district and often in spite of progress, however, they get fired. They get in trouble not for lack of educational progress, but for how they serve their boards. And I think I've come to believe Jim was right; it may be true that the better superintendents do the educational job--the more they are respected--the more success they have in changing schools, the more likely they are to have problems with their boards.

When my father was first named superintendent in 1951, the board was made up of white male business types, well known and successful in the community. They met on Wednesday afternoons at two o'clock in a small room with a large table. They sat around the table, followed Robert's Rules of Order, and finished the agenda in time to get home for supper. There were stories around our dinner table about one board member who tried to "interfere'' with administration by trying to influence an appointment, but all in all, the "elite'' boards of my father's time acted in what they perceived to be the interest of the community. They were respected in the community as a board, they settled disagreements by quiet voting, and, for the most part, assumed that they needed a strong superintendent to run the school system. They hired the superintendent, they voted to raise taxes, they approved the budget, they urged the superintendent on when he took on the state establishment, they gave out diplomas at graduation, and named new schools.

The 1970's and issues that arose over desegregation and civil rights showed Americans that these elite boards had not, after all, been acting in the interest of the whole community. As community consensus about schools fractured, the board meetings my husband attended as superintendent increasingly became long, tortuous affairs, characterized by serious and seemingly unresolvable issues. Board members sat at a long table on a raised dais in the large auditorium, facing not each other but the cameras. Meetings went long into the night, and controversies were revealed in short sound bites on community TV and in the newspaper. Since board members of the old style didn't want to spend their time and sully their reputations in this kind of conflict, a new kind of community leader increasingly was elected to school boards.

These grassroots leaders are more likely to speak for a constituency--a racial minority group, local school P.T.A.'s, church groups, one-issue interest groups. Coming from traditionally powerless bases, these new board members are often intern politicians full of commitment, righteous indignation, ambition, insecurity, and anger. They are less likely to understand complex organizations and less likely to trust educators; they are more likely to look for simple solutions to complex problems and to see public disagreements as opportunities rather than disasters. They don't necessarily want strong superintendents.

A new breed of superintendent now finds a job that is not about schools, but about school boards. Initiates into the superintendency find that the very people who hired them don't trust them or respect their advice and may from the beginning withhold support in fear of being labeled in the press with the dreaded "rubber stamp.'' Novice politicians may believe that an unwillingness to agree or to compromise will get them political mileage with their constituencies and that to take on the superintendent in public will bring not only satisfaction but status in their community.

These new boards find dealing with the policy role that history has assigned them too complex, too risky politically. Administrative details carry with them a more important kind of power, so they avoid the difficult educational problems of school reform, problems central to what and how students learn and teachers teach, preferring to deal with architect's contracts, janitor-hiring, and superintendent evaluations.

Superintendents discover that those evaluations often reflect underground agendas growing out of individual board members' expectations for how they are to be treated--to have favors done, to have services provided, to have a special study undertaken, to have a say in particular administrative decisions, to talk educational ideas ad infinitum, to be entertained socially, to travel royally. More often than not, their demands are not important, but the nature of the superintendency has changed as superintendents spend more and more time and energy responding. The more board members, the more responding; when members are elected from districts, the prerogatives even more strongly felt; the larger and weaker the egos, the more sensitive the decisions, however unimportant. Superintendents don't tell about how much subservience is required and how much of their valuable time is spent dealing with board members outside the meeting setting, listening to board members, worrying about the impact their personal requests will have on the district, covering for their indiscretions, trying to satisfy their sense of their own importance.

Increasingly, superintendents need their own constituency. The business community, P.T.A.'s, and other groups with a broad interest in education in the community provide a power base for the superintendent. Superintendents often involve such groups in community-based planning efforts, knowing that a consensus in the community provides a balance to a board that may be distracted by internal conflicts and coalition-building. If board members sense a changing balance of power, they may not welcome it. In retaliation, they may form coalitions that vote without regard to the merits of the issues; they may plot against the superintendent with people within the district; they may seek to constrain what the superintendent can say and do or try to embarrass the superintendent in public. What makes it worse is that superintendents know that communities sit back and let it happen. These personal attacks distract the community and the superintendent from the work to be done and thereby endanger any consensus for change. The unspoken dread is that they also increase the superintendent's vulnerability to those in the community who wish him or her harm.

As the expectations for schools grow, our educational leaders find that they cannot depend on school boards to help. More often than not, boards are a part of the problem, not partners in designing solutions. And yet much educational reform depends on the superintendent's ability to convince the board that hired him or her to commit to reforms that the board members are likely to perceive as unsettling to their interests or erosive to the board's powers.

Local and cosmopolitan superintendents alike don't talk about their jobs much, except to their families and to each other. They look at each other knowingly. They shake their heads when they hear that a superintendent is moving; they refigure their standing in the retirement system, dream of a college teaching job ... or they buy a new interview suit.

Before he died, my brother Jim rediscovered his optimism and energy for the job. He would say, I believe, that there are still some boards out there that would be good to work for--that confront controversial issues with courage and consideration and that know that their first concern must be for the community and its children, that a community's faith in its schools can be shattered by ugly divisiveness among those that seek to lead, that their best source of information about how to deal with difficult educational problems is the superintendent they choose, and that the superintendent they have chosen wants to improve teaching and learning in the community's schools but needs respect, support, encouragement, and time to do that very difficult job. Jim would have looked for a board like that and he might have found one, but he might never have been able to quit figuring ... or dreaming ... or looking for a new interview suit.

Caroline Burns Cody is an associate professor of education at the University of New Orleans.

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