Contracts Heighten Chiefs' Accountability

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In the midst of a school reform movement that is demanding results of its students, teachers, and principals, two recently appointed state schools chiefs are learning that accountability applies even to those at the top.

Glenn W.

Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Tave Zelman and Illinois state Superintendent Glenn W. "Max" McGee--both hired within the past year--are working under performance-based contracts that demand progress in exchange for, respectively, salary bonuses and job renewal.

Performance-based contracts "are a must" when local superintendents and principals are responsible for student performance, said Louis Mervis, the chairman of the Illinois board of education. "We've got to make everybody in the food chain responsible for their section."

State superintendents in 14 states are held directly accountable to the public because they are popularly elected, and the chiefs in 10 states are appointed and held accountable by governors.

Susan Tave Zelman

But for the schools chiefs in the 26 states that are appointed by state boards of education, performance-based contracts seem a natural fit, said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

"I expect we'll see more of it," Mr. Ambach said.

Clear Expectations

In Illinois last October, state board members agreed on a three-year contract that is renewable only if Mr. McGee meets certain criteria, including making continuous improvement in student performance statewide, providing solid service to districts, and working with schools of education to improve teacher training.

Unlike contracts with past state superintendents, the board's expectations for Mr. McGee are written into the contract and are not negotiable at the end of one year, Mr. Mervis said. When salary and retirement benefits are combined, Mr. McGee--who started his new job in January--will receive $205,000 a year over three years. ("Ill. Board Names McGee State Schools Chief," Nov. 4, 1998.)

With former Superintendent Joseph A. Spagnolo Jr., who resigned from office last summer amid a swirl of controversy, "we had a superintendent that didn't meet our expectations," Mr. Mervis said. "You can't ask specific districts to perform and not hold your own person accountable. Otherwise, you give everybody an out."

For Ms. Zelman, who started her tenure as the state superintendent in Ohio in March, the decision to include a performance-based provision in her contract was her own.

Before she left her previous position as deputy schools chief in Missouri, Ms. Zelman said she was trying to get performance-based contracts in place.

Now, in Ohio, Ms. Zelman's contract guarantees her a base salary of $135,000, with a $15,000 bonus contingent on her ability to meet specified goals, including building solid relationships with lawmakers and the business community and establishing a long-term plan for the education department and long-term goals for Ohio schools.

"Ultimately, if they keep me around for a while, I can affect student performance," Ms. Zelman said. "It's important for a state superintendent to walk the talk."

Vol. 18, Issue 35, Page 23

Published in Print: May 12, 1999, as Contracts Heighten Chiefs' Accountability
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