The High-Pressure World of Superintendents

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"No matter how effective I am, by the end of the year at least 10 percent of the people I deal with become my enemies," a West Coast school superintendent once confided to Frederick M. Wirt, a professor at the University of Illinois who has written extensively on the politics of education. "In five years, that means 50 percent of them are enemies."

Although exceptions to the rule can always be found, the West Coast superintendent's predicament seems to be shared by a substantial percentage of the nation's school-district leaders. Theirs is a career in which jobs last only five years on the average, due largely to conflicts with school boards and inabilities to fully satisfy competing special interests.

In the words of a former Boston superintendent, the skills that mat-ter most for the job today are not those of a chief executive officer, but rather of a "diplomat, cajoler, [and] reconciler of widely disparate views."

The pressure of administering a large school district apparently became too much to bear for Frederick D. Holliday, Cleveland's 58-year-old superintendent, who shot and killed himself two weekends ago. In his suicide note, he urged the city to use his death to rid itself of "petty politics, racial politics, greed, hate, and corruption."

'DNA of Superintendencies'

"Conflict is the dna of superintendencies," said Larry Cuban, associate professor of school administration at Stanford University, in an interview last week. A former school superintendent in Arlington County, Va., Mr. Cuban lost his job of seven years in 1981 when the coalition of school-board members that supported him was voted out of office.

Samuel B. Husk, whose work as executive director of the Council of Great City Schools has brought him into daily contact with many urban school chiefs, added: "Around 1968, the lid came down and made these jobs into real pressure cookers. Superintendents get into the business of education because they're genuinely interested in kids. But when more of what they do is raised to the political and diplomatic level, when their work becomes more and more removed from kids, you can see why they begin to despair."

A New Arena

According to former superintendents and researchers who have studied the politics of school administration, the social upheavals of the late 1960's introduced a number of new and powerful forces into the educational arena, drastically increasing pressure on superintendents while at the same time diminishing their authority.

"It is surprising how quickly the political structures, actors, and processes of educational politics have become so fundamentally reorganized" since 1970, wrote Mr. Wirt of the University of Illinois and Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University, in their 1982 book, Schools in Conflict. "The era of the local superintendent as 'administrative chief' was then dawning. We did not, however, anticipate the multitude of actors and the complexity of the governmental patterns nor the large amount of discretion the chief executive would lose."

Conflicting Demands

Much of the pressure exerted on superintendents has been generated by the emergence of politically powerful special-interest groups, whose conflicting demands are often impossible to reconcile, Mr. Wirt and Mr. Kirst agreed in interviews last week.

"We're now in an era that I characterize as 'everybody and nobody in charge,"' said Mr. Kirst. "With so many contending forces, the job of the superintendent is now one of political broker and coalition builder. It's a situation that's more prevalent than one thinks."

"The role of the superintendent has changed from being one of a fatherly authority figure in the community to one where he is much more of a negotiator who handles conflicts," commented Mr. Wirt. "The nature of school politics has changed. The new participants have opened the system up."

According to Robert Wood, a former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who in 1980 was fired as Boston's superintendent two years into his four-year contract, satisfying the demands of a "fractionalized" school community was one of his most challenging tasks.

"[T]here have been times and places in which common bonds have linked most parents," Mr. Wood wrote in an article in the summer 1982 edition of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. "Now, [there are] special-needs parents, bi-lingual parents, regular-education parents, examination-school parents, advanced-standing parents. Each has a different perspective and different priorities, and each asserts special claims on resources. Finding common ground with the school community--finding a community at all--is increasingly uncertain."

Changing School Boards

Mr. Wood, now a professor at Wesleyan University, added in an interview that "the constituency element has come to muddy up the 'honorable volunteer' image of school boards," further complicating the work of superintendents of school districts.

"You didn't use to have the highly political orientation on boards, as you do today," he said. "What you have now are people who come to boards with strong 'education views,' but they are essentially amateurs when it comes to running big organizations. They have a hard time distinguishing between policy and administration."

Not only are school-board members a different breed than they were before, but their terms in office are shorter than in the past, creat-ing less stability and further eroding boards' relationships with superintendents. A recent survey by the the National School Boards Association indicates that the average school-board member today is serving for the first time and has been on the board for between four and seven years.

Growing Friction

Evidence of growing friction between superintendents and school boards appeared in a November 1981 survey of 1,300 school chiefs conducted for the American Association of School Administrators. Fifteen percent of the respondents cited conflicts with their school boards and the ''growing tendency of the board to be uncooperative" as key reasons for leaving their previous jobs.

The superintendents also said the caliber of individuals assigned to or removed from boards and the frequency of attacks on their management by board members would be among their top five reasons for deciding whether or not to leave their current positions. In a 1971 survey, those two reasons ranked 12th and 16th, respectively, on their list of reasons for wanting to leave. (See Education Week, March 10, 1982.)

"The relationship between a superintendent and a board is like a marriage," said Mr. Cuban of Stanford. "If that relationship is a troubled one, all you wind up with is mutual recriminations."

Financial Problems

The perilous financial condition of many major urban school districts--and the austerity measures and tax increases needed to bring such conditions under control--also tend to generate the kind of controversy that makes superintendents unpopular.

According to A. Bernard Hatch, who was dismissed from his job as superintendent in Dayton, Ohio, last June, the plan he implemented in 1982 to get the district "back on its feet didn't much bring friendliness and support."

"When I came to the district in February 1981, it was in deep financial difficulty, and we had to get efficiency of operations before we could go to the voters for a school levy," he said.

The plan he implemented called for the closing of 18 schools and the layoff 600 school employees. After three attempts, voters in June 1983 finally passed the 9.9-mill levy--the largest school levy in the state in 50 years and the first in the district since 1970.

"When you pass a levy in a town like this, that's a big move," said Mr. Hatch, who is now a consultant to the state department of education. "While there was no formal backlash, no one is ever happy when you pass new taxes."

Turning the Corner?

Although the turnover rate among superintendents remains high, Mr. Husk of the Council of Great City Schools said there are signs that the near future may bring a somewhat greater measure of stability.

"The years between 1970 and 1975 saw a tremendous change in superintendencies, but since that time we've seen stability in several major cities," such as Atlanta, Detroit, and San Francisco, he said. "I think we may be emerging from a period of transition. The bottom line is that being a superintendent is probably one of the most difficult jobs a person can choose. Thank goodness there are people willing to take it on."

"The situation is workable," added Mr. Kirst. "It all depends on whether the superintendent can put together a working coalition. Many of them are getting to be very good politicians. Superintendents used to see themselves as captains of a ship. But once they get out of that frame of mind and realize they're in a political juggling act, they get better at it."

Vol. 04, Issue 20

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