Local Fights Over Superintendencies Are Seen Rekindling Racial Tensions

March 28, 1990 18 min read
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In recent weeks, white school-board members in at least five communities have been accused of racial bias after voting on issues affecting their superintendent’s contract.

Protests in three of the districts--Boston; Selma, Ala.; and St. Helena, La.--were touched off when white-controlled boards voted to dismiss black superintendents.

In Syracuse, N.Y., the school board was forced by community protests to rescind its decision not to increase the salary of its superintendent, who is black.

And in Prince George’s County, Md., a white superintendent backed out of a 10-year, multimillion-dollar contract extension after black activists balked at the arrangement--and questioned his commitment and accomplishments.

Similar though less publicized tensions have emerged elsewhere this year--and at a rate that has some experts voicing concern. Just last week, for instance, more than 200 students boycotted classes in Durant, Miss., demanding, among other things, that the district’s white superintendent resign.

In interviews, more than 30 national experts asked to assess the meaning of the apparent surge in racially tinged superintendency disputes agreed that, while the number of such incidents is unusually high this year, the issues they raise are not new.

Among them, they said, are the fact that few blacks ever get the chance to lead a school system; that those who do must tackle some of education’s most severe academic and financial problems and may be held to unrealistic expectations; and that community perceptions of a need for black leadership in majority-black school systems has created a political mine field.

Some of those questioned linked the recent outbreak of school-related protests to a growing perception that racial tensions are worsening throughout the country--a perception, they noted, that the incidents themselves help to fuel.

“Many within the minority community are becoming very sensitive again to issues of equity,” said James Oglesby, a school-board member in Columbia, Mo., and president of the National School Boards Association.

Forrest N. Rieke, a board member in Portland, Ore., offered another common perspective: “The idea that there might be a resurgence of racial difficulties is, I think, a media perception. The fact is, the issue is with us continuously.”

Defining ‘Racial Politics’

Most of those interviewed declined to discuss the specifics of any case in point, saying that the history of each community and the circumstances surrounding each disputed decision vary too widely for overall conclusions to be drawn.

But the experts, who included current and former superintendents, school-board members, association officials, and university professors, generally agreed that racial politics continue to play an important--and often potentially explosive--role in districts with sizable minority populations.

“There are racial sentiments involved whenever you have a majority-black district,” said Larry Cuban, professor of educational administration at Stanford University and a nationally recognized expert on the history of urban school leadership.

The racial tensions in the recent cases, he said, have been “heightened by all the other racial conflicts” that have made Howard Beach and Tawana Brawley household names.

“A lot of board-superintendent disputes have their roots in other causes,” Mr. Cuban added. “But if the participants are of different races, people have a hard time sorting out race from the other issues.”

In each of the five recent protests, the allegations of racial bias helped inflame the situation and drew more media attention to it than would otherwise have been the case.

Most of the participants have publicly denied that racial considerations were a factor in their decisions, and none of the black protesters have offered concrete proof for their allegations.

One of the difficulties in analyzing such incidents, experts said, is that allegations of bias are almost impossible to prove in an era when discriminatory language can be a death knell for politicians.

“You never know what’s in people’s minds when they get down to making a vote,” said Lloyd C. Nielsen, a past president of the American Association of School Administrators who currently is a consultant to districts selecting superintendents.

In each of the five cases drawing media attention, however, the decisions in question have been made with nearly unanimous opposition from black board members.

“I’m always suspicious when the vote goes down along racial lines,” said William Saunders, executive director of the National Alliance of Black School Educators. “That ought to tell you something.”

Some contended that, given the state of U.S. race relations, it may not matter whether such allegations are true or not, because perceptions of racism have been almost as effective as clear cases of discrimination in reigniting smoldering tensions.

“Perceptions of racism are just as meaningful in many respects as reality, even where they diverge,” said Jeremiah Floyd, associate executive director of the NSBA.

“Every time you raise the issue, it will increase tension in the community,” said Ed Gardner, a school-board member in Denver. “It’s one of those situations where there’s some damage done as a result of the accusation.”

Superintendent Norward Roussell of Selma, who is at the center of the longest and most bitter of the protests, put it this way: “Part of the problem here is that nobody has a clear majority, so it’s always a political fight.”

“If you raise the racial issue,” he said, “you’ve got a chance of winning if you pick up maybe 10 or 15 percent from the other side.”

Crying ‘Bias’ for Gain?

Many whites voice the belief that the nation’s sensitivity to racial issues has, in some cases, encouraged black activists to cry “bias” to further their own political agendas.

In Selma, for instance, white politicians have charged that this winter’s highly publicized protests over the dismissal of Mr. Roussell were simply an exercise of political power by a handful of black leaders.

“Roussell is a pawn in a ‘Chess’ match,” Kimbrough Ballard, a Selma city councilman, said, referring to the nickname of a protest leader, J.L. Chestnut.

“He could be gone tomorrow, and this issue would not be gone,” Mr. Ballard added. "[The blacks] want control of the schools and the city government.”

Other whites who expressed similar views were reluctant to be quoted.

But a white superintendent who has worked in two urban school systems torn by racial strife said that such protests “do not reflect concern for the kids, or the feelings of white parents.”

“They don’t reflect anything but the power structure and who controls the resources,” he said.

Regardless of the motives of black protesters, the NSBA’s Mr. Floyd said, “where people feel that grievous wrongs have been heaped on them, and feel the need to express their view about the causes, they ought to be able to say that an action is racist if they really feel it is.”

On the other hand, he said, “when people feel it is not racist, they have the right to assert that point of view as well.”

Pattern of Discrimination

Most black educators interviewed were as disinclined as their white colleagues to assess the racial motives behind specific incidents this year. But they were far more likely to say the disputes were part of a historic pattern of discrimination against both potential and sitting black superintendents.

“This is something that has been going on for at least 20 years,” said Charles D. Moody, a former superintendent who founded the National Alliance of Black School Educators in 1970 as a support group for the first few black superintendents hired in the wake of the school-desegregation battles of the 1960’s.

“When you look back at the advent of desegregation, when virtually all blacks were moved out of principalships and administrative kinds of positions,” he said, “even if there has been an increase [in numbers of administrators], we’re probably not back up to where we were.”

Mr. Moody, the vice provost of the University of Michigan, estimates that there are currently between 125 and 135 black superintendents nationwide.

What little available data exist seem to indicate that his estimate is roughly correct. In a survey of state departments of education conducted during the 1987-88 school year by the American Association of School Administrators, only 1.2 percent of district superintendents responding were black.

By contrast, blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, and 17 percent of public-school enrollments.

Though most experts agree that the reasons for blacks’ under-representation in top school posts are far more complex than racism alone, black educators almost invariably give that factor more weight.

“Racism is not merely one thread in the fabric--there are many, many threads of racism in the fabric of American history and culture,” said Theodore D. Kimbrough, general superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools.

The most telling statistic lending credence to racism’s impact, he and others say, is the fact that only a handful of black superintendents have been hired to lead majority-white districts.

“Is that racism?” Mr. Kimbrough asked. “Well, of course, that’s racism. There is a problem with it, and we’re making some progress, but not as rapidly as we need to.”

The under-representation of blacks in superintendencies has occurred, Mr. Moody noted, “despite the fact that there are proportionately more blacks in education than in any other professional field.”

Of all doctorates earned by black Americans in 1987, 45 percent were in education, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Education Department. For whites, the corresponding figure is 23.5 percent.

“It’s still a struggle for both blacks and women to get to be superintendents,” said Floretta Dukes McKenzie, former superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools, and currently president of her own educational consulting firm.

From a board member’s point of view, racial considerations usually come closest to the surface when the board is considering hiring a new chief administrator.

Hiring’s Unwritten Rule

During the last two searches for a chancellor for the New York City public schools, for instance, it was widely reported that a white candidate stood little chance of winning the post.

Robert F. Wagner Jr., president of the New York City School Board, denies that racial considerations would have prevented the board from choosing “the best person possible.”

But he also concedes that race was “an important factor ... in an 80 percent minority school system.”

Several executive-search consultants interviewed could quickly identify the race and gender of superintendent recruits they had worked with, and said they made special efforts in nearly all cases to recruit female and minority candidates.

Some board members explicitly ask for “balanced and diverse” slates of finalists, the consultants said, but more often the racial politics of the situation are conveyed through more subtle means.

“If I wanted to be glib, I would say it was by osmosis,” said Carroll F. Johnson, professor emeritus at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a consultant in some 135 superintendent searches.

“You just get a feel for the community” through meetings with board members, teachers, administrators, support staff, and parents, he said.

Several experts said that many searches, particularly those in districts where minorities are in the majority, are governed by an unwritten rule of thumb: As one source phrased it, “If all other qualifications are equal, a minority should be chosen.”

“A district saying it must have a black superintendent is just as illegal as a district wanting to hire a white one,” Mr. Johnson said. ''But we don’t think of that with the emotional kick that we get when we think of whites as being racist.”

The reason this double standard is accepted, he and others insist, is that a sense of fairness dictates that women and minorities be given more opportunities to enter what has historically been a profession dominated by white males.

Role Models, Problem Solvers

Others point to a widespread belief among educators that black superintendents are more easily identified as role models by black schoolchildren.

“That’s not saying that whites could not exemplify that kind of behavior,” said Milton S. Bins, deputy director of the Council of Great City Schools, “but, unfortunately, in our society, we’ve basically been defined in terms of what we are supposed to be able to achieve and do based on our race and color.”

Minority students, he added, “have to be able to see examples from our race and group that have reached the levels of achievement established by society.”

“If a student body always sees nothing but whites at the top, [a school district is] going to have problems,” agreed G. Holmes Braddock, a board member in Dade County, Fla., a district that has recently managed its second peaceful transition from a minority to a white superintendent.

Black superintendents are also considered by many to be more able than whites to calm existing racial unrest, partly because they share the cultural background of black students and are more likely to be sensitive to the concerns of the black community.

“If most of a district’s problems are problems of racial and ethnic tensions, they sometimes can best be solved by the superintendent being a minority,” Mr. Braddock said.

“But part of the problem that a lot of minorities had was that they were just promoted to handle minority problems,” he added. School systems are now looking for candidates “who can handle a district’s total problems as well as a majority superintendent can.”

Mr. Rieke of Portland believes his majority-white district found just such a superintendent in 1982, when it hired Matthew W. Prophet, a black who has been unsuccessfully recruited by many other urban school boards.

“In 1982, we were experiencing a great deal of pressure from our minority communities,” Mr. Rieke said. “They felt like they were not being attended to.”

The district still feels pressure to close the achievement gap between white and black students, he said, “but for the most part, the things that were less resolvable--the emotional side of those pressures--were removed from our plate with the new superintendent.”

Mr. Prophet enjoys wide support among the district’s white patrons, Mr. Rieke said, because “he’s the kind of person who makes all issues amenable to solution.”

But in Syracuse, another majority-white district with a black superintendent--its second--a willingness to hire blacks for the top school post did not bring immunity from charges of racial bias. The denial this month of a salary increase for Superintendent Henry Williams prompted a public outcry.

The Syracuse board rescinded its decision--and offered Mr. Williams the 8 percent increase he had requested-- after more than 1,000 residents showed up at a board meeting to demonstrate their support for him.

An article in the Syracuse Journal-Tribune comparing the situation with other current and historical racial incidents is credited by some as being the deciding factor in persuading the board to change its mind.

Prince George’s County officials also learned how quickly a seemingly harmonious racial situation could explode last month when they offered Superintendent John A. Murphy, who is white, an eight-year contract extension and a hefty pay increase.

In return for the offer, which was so unusual that it needed the approval of the state legislature, Mr. Murphy agreed to drop his application for the top school post in Dade County and to remain in Prince George’s County for eight years beyond the two remaining on his current contract.

Black leaders angrily protested the move, arguing in part that it would prevent the majority-black district from hiring a black superintendent for the next 10 years.

But, said Ruth Brown, director of education for the Prince George’s affiliate of the NAACP, “the main issue was the manner in which the contract was devised and offered--only three people were involved in the process.”

Others charged that the district’s nationally recognized efforts to improve education for minority students actually masked an insensitivity to the needs of some students. That was a charge that ultimately prompted a decision by Mr. Murphy to leave the system.

In a letter releasing board members from the offer, he said, “The events of the past week place in jeopardy all that I have ever stood for both personally and professionally.”

Factors Limiting the Pool

As some experts noted, many white superintendents have proven to be powerful advocates for minority constituencies. But more efforts to recruit minorities are needed, they said, to counteract their under-representation in the profession.

A handful of training programs geared specifically toward promising minority administrator candidates were operated in the 1960’s and 70’s by foundations and universities and were a major stepping stone for many of the current crop of black superintendents, Mr. Moody and others noted. But most have now ceased to function.

These programs offered, Mr. Moody said, the mentoring and networking opportunities crucial to the selection of superintendents, but not readily available to most blacks working in the field.

As the AASA survey revealed, there is a potential pool of black superintendents among principals and assistant superintendents, where blacks made up 7 percent to 10 percent of the national totals.

But the NSBA’s Mr. Floyd cautioned that “one of the things that might mitigate against blacks being successful as superintendent candidates is that often boards will look for persons who have CEO or superintendent experience.”

“When they do that,” he said, “it naturally limits the field of minorities to the handful that have been able to break through and get the top job.”

Potential black candidates are also handicapped, several experts said, by the fact that most smaller school districts that serve as steppingstones to bigger districts are majority white, except those in the “Black Belt” region of the South and a few Northern suburbs.

Some charged, however, that the pervasiveness of discrimination at all levels of education prevents many black educators from garnering the promotions and experience they need to become qualified to lead.

Judged in the ‘Hottest Kitchens’

The districts that do hire black superintendents tend to share a common set of conditions, Mr. Moody said: minority students make up the majority of their enrollments, they have lagging test scores, they have had financial problems, they are not attractive to aspiring whites, and the community has given up and does not have any confidence in the school system.

Gary Marx, associate executive director of the AASA, put it this way: “Some of the toughest jobs and hottest kitchens in education are being led by black superintendents.”

And when a school district hires its first black superintendent, said Stanford’s Mr. Cuban, “everyone focuses on that man or woman.”

Several black educators said they also believe communities hold higher expectations for black superintendents, and are quicker to criticize them when problems arise.

“If you look at the yardstick of measurement for superintendents, our yardstick is only 24 inches,” Mr. Kimbrough said. “It’s much shorter.”

He added that “things we get criticized for are never even considered when you look at males of the majority race.”

Some black researchers have concluded that black superintendents are more often criticized than whites for their style, rather than their performance.

They noted that both Laval S. Wilson, the recently dismissed superintendent of schools in Boston, and Mr. Roussell in Selma received better-than-average ratings from their boards on performance. But in both cases board members cited communication problems between the superintendent and his staff and constituencies as a reason for the vote to dismiss.

According to the NSBA’s Mr. Floyd, however, “that criticism is not unique to black superintendents.”

Style is “often a key factor,” he said, in disputes between boards and superintendents. He added, “I don’t know if there is an exacerbation of that issue when the superintendent is black.”

“It’s hard to say,” Mr. Cuban said. “The job of the superintendency is so tough to begin with, looking for a racial handle may be the easiest thing to do.”

The higher expectations held for black superintendents are felt in the form of pressures from both the black and white communities, several experts said.

In Selma, where a six-week occupation of city hall was ended by a court order this month, protesters said they felt the board had voted to dismiss Mr. Roussell because he had paid too much attention to the needs of black students.

Most mentioned the superintendent’s efforts to reform a tracking system considered to be unfair to black students. But one protester said that “before he came, the black elementary school still had maps of the United States with 48 states.”

In Boston, black school-committee members charged their white colleagues with racial bias in the vote to fire Mr. Wilson, the district’s first black superintendent, but an expected community backlash to the decision never materialized.

“Laval Wilson downplayed the fact that he was Boston’s first black superintendent,” said Richard Gray Jr., adult coordinator for Free My People, a youth leadership program in a predominantly black Boston neighborhood.

“He didn’t make a lot of contact and alliances in the community until the stuff started hitting the fan,” he said. “The community didn’t feel the shaft because they didn’t know who he was. They didn’t feel a personal connection with him.”

“The issue of race,” Mr. Gray concluded, “didn’t come up until there was trouble.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Local Fights Over Superintendencies Are Seen Rekindling Racial Tensions

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