Education Opinion

An Ex-Superintendent on Why He Quit

By Jack Kaufhold — March 18, 1992 5 min read
  • The Cause Celebrant. Similar to the Vigilante, this individual is motivated by a cause. “Why can’t our schools be more like Japanese schools?’' “We need to go back to basics.’' “Why don’t they teach math like they used to?’' With the myopic vision of a Cyclops, he runs with a single-issue agenda, making enemies of any and all who do not agree with him.

What has caused this departure from a profession that I once loved? Was it caused by a decrease of public support? A shortage of funds for schools? The now-famous “rising tide of mediocrity’’? No, it was nothing this terrible or dramatic. After 25 years as a teacher and school administrator, my departure was caused by a bird of prey--The Great American School Board Member.

Various species of this “bird’’ are extinguishing a creature that is rapidly becoming extinct--the long-term school superintendent. Current national figures show that the average tenure of school superintendents is well under four years--the term of a standard contract. With power-hungry board members becoming more intrusive in their roles, it is no wonder that superintendents are being driven out or bought out in increasing numbers.

From my coign as superintendent, I have delineated five species of this bird of prey:

  • The Little League Father/Stage Door Mother. This species has graduated from coaching junior in the juvenile leagues or promoting little Janie’s dancing recitals. They now run for the school board in order to serve the best interests of their offspring.

One board member, whose son was an outstanding basketball player, told me he was withholding his vote for building a new elementary school that would alleviate overcrowding. His explanation? He preferred to spend the money on a new field house for basketball. He reasoned that the bigger the gym, the bigger the crowds and the better the chance that college scouts would come to visit.

  • The Social Climber. I once knew a woman whose husband’s used-car business practically doubled overnight and afforded her the opportunity to quit her job and move into a fashionable neighborhood. When she announced her candidacy for the school board, friends told me this was predictable because “in this town you have truly arrived when you are elected to the board of education.’'
  • The Vigilante. Almost every town has its vigilante on the school board. The Vigilante has had a repugnant experience with school officials--a teacher who graded too hard, a principal who disciplined his child, a superintendent who didn’t return a telephone call. With the ebullience of a missionary, he extracts his revenge by running for the board to “clean up the school system.’' Citing “low morale’’ and “teacher indifference’’ (two charges difficult to prove or disprove), this person runs on a platform of enmity. Gaining support from others with similar experiences, he vows to “shake things up’’ by moving principals or firing the superintendent.
  • The Cause Celebrant. Similar to the Vigilante, this individual is motivated by a cause. “Why can’t our schools be more like Japanese schools?’' “We need to go back to basics.’' “Why don’t they teach math like they used to?’' With the myopic vision of a Cyclops, he runs with a single-issue agenda, making enemies of any and all who do not agree with him.
  • The Petty Politician. The Petty Politician is a candidate looking for office--any office. I had a board member tell me in a moment of weakness, “When friends encouraged me to run for the school board, I was flattered. I had never been elected to anything and I wanted to see what it would be like.’' Once elected, this man, caught up in the euphoria of public acclaim, would back any cause to ensure his re-election.

With “birds of prey’’ such as these on our boards, the superintendent’s role shrinks to one of a functionary. At best he becomes a chameleon dedicated to placating and pampering board members while subjugating his expertise and experience to the capricious whims of those who vote on his contract.

Worse yet, what does the future hold? With lack of job security and lack of authority to do the job for which he was trained, what bright, imaginative man or woman will aspire to the superintendency? What is needed is a new code of ethics over those who serve on our boards of education. The following suggestions would be a step in that direction.

  • No contract buyouts. Legislation should be passed making it illegal for school boards to buy out a superintendent’s contract. At present, board members can buy out a superintendent’s contract over any issue, from a personal disagreement to a difference in philosophy. Hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars are wasted by this practice as school districts pay two superintendents simultaneously--one to come to work and one to stay home.
  • Only four-year contracts. This suggestion, coupled with the first, will ensure a measure of continuity in school districts. I once worked in a district that had four different superintendents over a 10-year period due to a timid board that offered only two-year contracts and then impatiently fired the person. Imagine the confusion and waste of money as policy and programs flip-flopped back and forth like jumping beans.
  • Careful screening of candidates. Anyone can run for the board for any reason. Depending on the opposition (sometimes there is none) or the party affiliation (where candidates are elected on partisan lines), anyone can also be elected. Measures should be taken to screen candidates for fitness for office, pedagogical knowledge, motivation for election, and philosophy of education.
  • Procedures for removal or censure of unfit board members. I once sat by helplessly and watched as a board member practically destroyed teacher morale at the opening day’s orientation meeting. After instructing the teachers to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat’’ in rounds, she announced: “That was fun. I always wanted a chance to tell teachers what to do.’' Atrocities such as this are committed commonly by unthinking, ill-prepared board members in amateur attempts of second-guessing teachers, principals, or superintendents. With no avenues of removal or censure open, board members can act virtually without restraint.
  • Legalize parameters of authority. In districts where I have worked, the understanding was that “school boards make policy, superintendents administer policy.’' Fair enough. The only trouble with this was that board members wanted to do both functions. When board members exceed their authority, who is there to correct them? The hired-hand superintendent? Not if he has bought a house and settled his children in the local schools. Legal parameters of authority need to be delineated and should be enforced by an impartial school-board attorney who is paid by the local government.

If we persist in comparing the American education system with that of other countries, we also need to ask if other countries burden their educators with boards of amateurs who use their elected positions for self-serving ends and circumscribe teachers and administrators who seek to do a job for which they have four to eight years of college training.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 1992 edition of Education Week as An Ex-Superintendent on Why He Quit