In Iowa, Some Superintendents Serve Two Masters
Sharing leaders helps small districts cut costs, but makes for taxing job.
When the high school in this town in central Iowa hosted a football game against the team from a neighboring district last month, Superintendent Bob Lehman made sure that he wore neutral colors to the event.
That’s because he’s the superintendent of both districts. Like 18 other district chiefs in Iowa, Mr. Lehman splits his time between two school systems, each of which pays half his salary.
“I’m obligated to represent both districts,” said Mr. Lehman, explaining his aversion to purple and orange on game days. “If I were to wear the color of one community, then it looks like I’m representing only that community. It sends the wrong message.”
Sharing superintendents is seen as a way to achieve greater efficiency in a rural state where 70 percent of the 370 districts enroll fewer than 1,000 students. In some cases, double duty becomes a first step toward merger. In others, it’s primarily seen as a money-saver.
Iowa law has long allowed for shared superintendents, and for the past several years the number of them has held relatively steady. But with 75 percent of the state’s districts experiencing enrollment declines, some observers are predicting that number will grow.
Among them is Gov. Tom Vilsack. The Democrat, who has pushed hard for improving Iowa’s high schools in recent months, has urged more districts to share services as a way to reduce costs and provide more instructional resources to students.
“Is it necessary and appropriate for every district to have their own separate unit of administration?” the governor said at a conference of Iowa administrators this past summer. “That question needs to be asked.”
Whether more district leaders will agree to work under such arrangements remains to be seen. Although they earn more for taking on a dual role, the job is a taxing one. It means handling two school boards, two budgets, and twice as many staff meetings.
Miles to Travel
Troyce Fisher, a former executive director of the Des Moines-based School Administrators of Iowa, says that while sharing makes financial sense, few who agree to lead more than one district are able to do so for long.
“On the surface, I think it looks like a logical kind of thing to do, but the reality is that when you share two districts, you’re almost getting exponentially more work,” she said. “Where is the time to dig deeply into student-achievement data, to work with coaching principals?”
Each of the districts Mr. Lehman leads is the result of past consolidations. One simply goes by the initials of the towns it now serves: AGWSR, for Ackley, Geneva, Wellsburg, and Steamboat Rock. The other is the Eldora-New Providence system. Together, they serve 1,300 students spread over 400 square miles of mostly cornfields.
Formerly a district chief in Wisconsin, Mr. Lehman had been the superintendent of AGWSR for less than a year when, in early 2004, his counterpart in Eldora-New Providence announced his retirement. The school board there asked if AGWSR wanted to share operations.
Allen Jaspers, the vice president of the AGWSR board, saw a shared superintendent as a win-win setup. Under the deal, each district would chip in $57,500 for Mr. Lehman’s salary, instead of the $90,000 that AGWSR had been paying him. That meant his compensation would rise to $115,000.
In a time of tight budgets, Mr. Jaspers said, the savings essentially meant being able to keep a teacher. “It’s when you are cutting teachers and programs that the community can be more outraged,” he said. “Most of the community doesn’t understand what an administrator’s day-to-day duties are.”
Most weeks, Mr. Lehman spends Mondays and Wednesdays in AGWSR, and Tuesdays and Thursdays in Eldora-New Providence. Fridays he spends time in each, while making up for any imbalance caused earlier in the week by such demands as out-of-town meetings.
“If I had a weak principal, this would not be a good plan,” said Mr. Lehman, who oversees three schools in each district. “If you have a weak principal, you have a weak school, and a school with lots of problems. We’re fortunate we have very strong principals.”
Mr. Lehman answers to 14 school board members. Each district has its own set of issues. The superintendent oversaw the opening of two day-care facilities in AGWSR, while in Eldora-New Providence, he had to cut the district budget. Now, an especially steep drop in enrollment, from about 725 to 670 since last year, is forcing even deeper cuts in AGWSR’s budget.
The model has its benefits besides just saving money. The two districts have jointly planned some professional-development activities for their teachers. And they recently held combined meetings to come up with strategies for improving students’ health.
But the juggling act makes for long hours for the top school leader. Recently, Mr. Lehman began a day with a three-hour administrative meeting in AGWSR and ended it 12 hours later with a school board meeting in Eldora-New Providence. On the chance that he might get a spare hour for exercise, he keeps his mountain bike in the back of his silver Hyundai.
“Before, I would be working 45 hours a week, maybe 50, and of that time, I was working really hard a majority of my hours,” he said. “This last year, I was working 50 to 55 hours, but I was working hard every hour. And of that 55 hours, sometimes I was really scrambling to keep up.”
The record is mixed on whether such arrangements lead to more cooperation. Last year, the 850-student Wapello district in southeastern Iowa broke off a 3-year-old superintendent-sharing agreement with the 250-student Morning Sun system, a one-campus district that sends students to secondary school elsewhere.
Not far from Mr. Lehman’s territory, leaders of the 770-student South Hamilton district and the 485-student Hubbard-Radcliff system decided after sharing a superintendent for two years that it was better for each to have its own, while negotiating how to share high school programs.
“Putting this thing together was going to make it really tough on one person,” said Dave Carlson, the president of the South Hamilton school board. “Someone’s going to feel like they’re getting the short end of the deal.”
In the same part of the state, the 320-student Aplington district and the 480-student Parkersburg system recently merged after sharing superintendents for many years.
During the courtship, both districts’ board meetings often were held in different corners of the same room, at the same time. Superintendent Patrick Morgan moved back and forth throughout the evening. Although hectic for him, the scheduling allowed members of the two boards to get to know one another.
“It feels much more comfortable now coming to the job,” Mr. Morgan said last week. “At least I’m not bouncing between districts trying to resolve things.”
Vol. 25, Issue 10, Page 8Published in Print: November 2, 2005, as In Iowa, Some Superintendents Serve Two Masters