Rapid Turnover in Urban Superintendencies Prompts Calls for Reforms in Governance

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The extraordinary number of urban school districts that are in the market for new superintendents--a number that has increased dramatically in the past few weeks--is prompting calls by some superintendents and scholars for a fundamental rethinking of the governance of city schools.

While the tasks facing urban superintendents have never been simple ones, the increasing demands placed on school systems in the nation's largest cities have made such superintendencies virtually impossible jobs, many top school officials said last week.

"I think that the whole governance structure of the schools is going to have to be looked at," said Ramon C. Cortines, the superintendent of the San Francisco schools. "I am very concerned about what's happening around the nation. What we are seeing across America is the disregard and the discarding of human beings."

School boards in Austin, Tex.; Boston; Columbus, Ohio; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Charleston, S.C.; Detroit; Indianapolis; Hartford; Houston; Kansas City, Mo.; Memphis; Milwaukee; Savannah, Ga.; St. Louis; Toledo, Ohio; Tucson; Virginia Beach, Va.; and Washington are all in various stages of searches for new chief executive officers for their school systems.

Last month alone, the superintendents of Columbus, Houston, Milwaukee, and Toledo resigned, while the school boards in Washington and Virginia Beach fired their superintendents. (See related story on this page.)

"It makes one wonder whether the central boards and central superintendencies in cities are still a viable way to run the schools," said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University and a former president of the California Board of Education. "This is very widespread."

"The fact that it is happening all over the place simultaneously suggests," he added, "more than just an individual city explanation."

In Boston, many residents and civic leaders have become convinced that the school committee is incapable not only of improving the city's schools, but of such routine leadership tasks as hiring a new superintendent.

Charging that the committee had mismanaged the search and seriously damaged the city's chances of attracting qualified candidates, the city council voted 10 to 3 last week to abolish the committee and to place the schools under the control of the mayor. (See story on page 1.)

Although the underlying reasons for the current turmoil in urban school districts are complicated, many observers said last week that dissatisfaction with the quality of the schools is widespread in virtually every large urban district.

When the challenges facing urban school districts--intricate desegregation cases, deteriorating schools, and tight budgets--are combined with the overwhelming needs of their predominantly poor student populations, they said, the mix creates a volatile situation for both board members and superintendents.

"It's easy for a city that faces these problems to think, 'O.K., here comes this wonderful superintendent, he'll get us out of the trouble,"' said Marjorie Smith, a member of the St. Louis school board. "Then, when he can't solve everything, they lose faith in him."

The added pressure of the education-reform movement has increased the sense of urgency in urban districts, observers added, noting, however, that it has not provided clear direction.

"The school boards represent the frustrations of the neighborhood," said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"People at the local level are sort of getting hammered," he added. "Because of the political pressures and the nostrums being sold by the governors, by the reform commissions, and by the Secretary of Education, there has been zero constancy of purpose."

School districts are even less likely to make their way through the thicket of educational reform if they cannot unite behind a superintendent long enough to see specific initiatives through, experts said last week.

"The tragedy when you get that rapid turnover is that nothing gets done," said Alonzo A. Crim, a professor at Georgia State University who served as superintendent of the Atlanta schools for 15 years. "Each person is only going to be able to accomplish three or four major changes at best, and you need stability to build a constituency to support those causes and get the job done."

Of the 45 districts that make up the Council of the Great City Schools, 28 are either looking for a new superintendent or have a superintendent who has served for two years or less, according to Samuel Husk, the council's executive director. He estimates that the average tenure for an urban superintendent is now less than three years.

Mr. Husk noted that the leadership in large districts remained relatively stable from 1975 to 1985, but that turnover has increased dramatically as school-board seats themselves have begun to change hands more frequently.

School boards are also widely viewed as being more political than they were in the past, due in large part to the fact that many board members are now elected to represent specific districts instead of the city at large.

"It has created a turf situation, where board members have a tendency to look out for the interest of a particular area they are representing," said Lillian Barna, the superintendent of the Tacoma, Wash., schools. "They fail to see the broader issues."

Ms. Barna, who has also served as superintendent in San Jose, Calif., and Albuquerque, N.M., was hired in New Mexico in 1984 by a seven-member board elected at large. After the state passed a law requiring boards to be elected by districts, the entire Albuquerque board was defeated and replaced with new members.

"That was the beginning of the end," said Ms. Barna, who resigned from that job in 1988.

The increasing tension in urban areas among members of different minority groups, and even among members of the same minority group over such charged issues as bilingual education, also has ratcheted up the pressure with which a superintendent must contend, observers said.

"I am fed up with people not understanding that there is no single entity that constitutes the entire school community," said Mr. Cortines. "All of the children, regardless of their ethnicity, socioeconomic status, limited English proficiency, whether they are gifted, or what geographic location they live in, are the responsibility of the chief executive officer and the board."

Echoing Mr. Cortines's concerns about increasingly fragmented communities, Paul Houston, the outgoing superintendent of the Tucson public schools, said he believes that school governance needs to be seriously rethought.

"You have to come down somewhere, which means every time you come down, you have alienated a certain segment of your population," he said. "Over time, as you lose your constituency, you lose your ability to govern."

Mr. Houston, who is leaving the Arizona district by his own choice to become superintendent of the Riverside, Calif., schools, noted that only one member of the five-member board that hired him is still serving.

Despite the criticism of school boards, several superintendents were quick to note mistakes their colleagues have made in trying to contend with the pressures of the jobs.

They complained about superintendents who cater excessively to the whims of individual board members, trade favors for favorable votes, permit a certain amount of patronage in their systems, or become involved in politics either inside the school system or in the community.

Mr. Cortines said such superintendents make the mistake of thinking that, "with just one more thing, they will leave you alone."

"Once you start," he warned, "they are on to you."

Ulysses V. Spiva, president of the Virginia Beach Board of Education and chairman of the Council of Urban Boards of Education of the National School Boards Association, said he believes there is "some merit to the complaint" that school boards are engaging in "petty politics'' and do not give superintendents the support they need to be effective.

"We have to take what's there and provide staff development and training" to superintendents, said Mr. Spiva, who is a professor of educational finance and school leadership at Old Dominion University. "Colleges and universities just do the basics."

Perhaps as troubling to many observers as the instability and political turmoil left in the wake of a departing superintendent is the shrinking pool of qualified candidates to take their places.

Several superintendents said that well-qualified school administrators who work for them are reluctant to move into the high-visibility superintendencies, particularly if they have families to support and do not want to risk losing their jobs.

The issue has become more critical as the turnover in urban districts has increased, because not every district will be able to find a superintendent who has served in a similar post in a district of similar size and complexity.

"Boards increasingly may have to take a chance on hiring somebody long on potential, and maybe a little short on demonstrated performance," said Ira W. Kinsky, a Los Angeles consultant who conducts searches for urban school districts.

Floretta D. McKenzie, the former superintendent of the District of Columbia schools who is now an educational consultant, is helping both Detroit and Kansas City search for new superintendents. But the number of applicants for such positions has dropped, she and other consultants said, creating what Ms. McKenzie calls a national "musical chairs" of applicants.

"We're advising districts to hurry and pin down a candidate," she added, "because it's going to get slimmer and slimmer."

Ms. McKenzie's firm, the Institute for Educational Leadership, and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies have received a $60,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to begin planning a program of short-term leadership institutes, technical assistance, and placement assistance for aspiring urban superintendents. They also plan to draw heavily on the expertise of advisers from the business world.

But the best hope for preparing educators who can handle the conflicting demands of the urban superintendency, many superintendents and consultants said recently, lies with Harvard University's new urban-superintendents program.

Now in its first year, the three-year, full-time doctoral program combines intensive summer seminars on urban issues, regular study in doctoral-level courses at the university, and internships in city school districts. Ten people are now in the program, with 8 to 10 more expected to join each year.

"Insofar as Harvard is good for anything, it's good for a little visibility," said Patricia Albjerg Graham, dean of the graduate school of education. "We felt if we could develop a program to prepare for the urban superintendency, then maybe some other universities would want to join us."

The program also will expose its participants to journalists studying at Harvard under a prestigious fellowship program, so that the educators can become more familiar with the news media and question reporters about their work, the dean added.

Robert S. Peterkin, who recently resigned his position as superintendent of the Milwaukee schools, will direct the program.

In setting out to find a new superintendent, it is critical that school boards understand the conditions under which the superintendent will work, said Carroll F. Johnson, a professor emeritus at Columbia University who has conducted dozens of superintendent searches.

Even when school boards have clearly defined agendas for incoming superintendents, school chiefs who carry out the orders can quickly get into political trouble, Mr. Johnson and others noted.

"A great many times, a board will tell a superintendent what they want him to do," the consultant said, "and if he takes it seriously and uses their judgment and does what they want him or her to do, the next thing you know, that's backfiring, and the board runs for cover, and the superintendent is left holding the bag."

In Virginia Beach, where the school board recently fired Superintendent E. Carlton Bowyer, that is precisely what happened, according to Mr. Spiva, the board's president. The board hired Mr. Bowyer, a veteran district administrator, and charged him with the task of implementing a new whole-language-based curriculum that had been approved by the board.

But when teachers and administrators began to complain that the superintendent was moving too fast, the board fired Mr. Bowyer, who has been on the job for less than a year and a half.

"He just moved much too quickly," Mr. Spiva said. "They just rebelled, and finally the board realized that the only way to resolve it was to remove the superintendent."

Mr. Johnson said he does not believe that candidates should accept such detailed mandates from school boards, but rather should use their own best judgment to make recommendations to the board.

When school boards and superintendents part ways, however, it can be enormously costly for the city's taxpayers. The Cleveland school board paid $360,000 to buy out Superintendent Alfred D. Tutela last year, while Joan Raymond, the superintendent of the Houston public schools, recently reached an agreement under which she will be paid $425,000 to leave her job at the end of the school year.

"A contract is a contract is a contract," said Ms. Raymond, who is paid $147,000 annually. "If the board wishes to change leadership, as it has every right to do, it must honor the contract."

Ms. Raymond and others said they believe that they have earned every penny of their salaries with grueling work schedules that often last long into the night.

Hernan LaFontaine, who is voluntarily leaving his position as superintendent in Hartford after 12 years, said it is not hard for superintendents to wonder about their line of work when they are up at 1 A.M. listening to "ridiculous items on the agenda" at a school-board meeting.

"My own personal therapy is, I go out to a school the next day," Mr. LaFontaine said. "It's a great equalizer when you talk with kids and remember what it's all about."

Vol. 10, Issue 15, Pages 1, 34-35

Published in Print: December 12, 1990, as Rapid Turnover in Urban Superintendencies Prompts Calls for Reforms in Governance
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