School & District Management

Top Jobs Opening Up in Nation’s School Districts

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — May 13, 2013 11 min read
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Districts across the country, including some of the nation’s largest, are facing a spate of superintendent vacancies.

Schools chiefs or interim superintendents will be leaving this year or next in at least 17 well-known districts, including Baltimore; Boston; Clark County, Nev.; Indianapolis; and Wake County, N.C.

And while school officials in some places, such as Baltimore, Boston, and Oakland, Calif., have indicated they intend to continue on paths laid out by their departing leaders, the turnover elsewhere may signal major changes—and go hand in hand, in some cases, with a shift in district priorities or governance restructuring.

For example:

• In Indianapolis, the search for a superintendent comes after a school board election in which numerous visions of the district’s future were floated.

• In Camden, N.J.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Prince George’s County, Md., the turnover at the top is accompanying dramatic changes in governance, such as a state takeover or district merger; and,

• In Atlanta; Columbus, Ohio; and El Paso, Texas, new leaders are needed to take the helm of school systems that have been through major cheating scandals.

Whether as an indicator of change or of commitment to a path, “superintendents become the representation of what the reform [plan in a district] is about. In selecting the next superintendent in these districts, we’re sending a very strong signal in terms of the direction of the district,” said Kenneth Wong, a professor of education at Brown University.

Superintendent Searches

At least 17 well-known districts are—or are expected to be—looking for new permanent schools chiefs. Search statuses are accurate as of May 10.

< >

—David Goldman/AP-File
Erroll B. Davis Jr.
48,000 students

The Atlanta school board is looking for a replacement for Mr. Davis, who has headed the district since the retirement of Beverly Hall last year amid a cheating scandal.

1 of 17

—Stephen Voss for Education Week-File
Andrés A. Alonso
85,000 students

The Baltimore school board will select a permanent replacement for Mr. Alonso, who announced his retirement this month. Tisha Edwards (not shown) will serve as interim superintendent.

2 of 17

—Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe/Getty-File
Carol R. Johnson
57,000 students

The Boston school board is searching for a replacement for Ms. Johnson, who is retiring after six years. The mayorally appointed board will likely wait until after city elections this fall to hire a permanent superintendent.

3 of 17

—Akira Suwa/The Philadelphia Inquirer-File
Bessie LeFra Young
Camden, N.J.
13,700 students

The governor and the state education commissioner announced a takeover of Camden’s schools in March. The school board had been looking for a replacement for Ms. Young, but the state will now appoint a new leader. Reuben F. Mills is interim.

4 of 17

—David Becker/Las Vegas Review-Journal-File
Dwight D. Jones
Clark County, Nev.
311,000 students

The Clark County school board is searching for a permanent superintendent to step in by 2013-14. Interim Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky in March replaced Mr. Jones, who left two years before his contract expired, for family reasons.

5 of 17

—Eric Albrecht/ The Columbus Dispatch/AP-File
Gene T. Harris
Columbus, Ohio
50,000 students

The Columbus school board postponed a search for a permanent replacement for Ms. Harris. Deputy Superintendent John Stanford or an interim will run the district in the meantime. The delay comes after the state threatened action in the wake of a cheating scandal.

6 of 17

—Carlos Osorio/AP-File
Roy Roberts
55,000 students (including charter schools)

Mr. Roberts, the state-appointed emergency manager, announced that he will step down this month. The governor is expected to announce a replacement before the end of the school year.

7 of 17

—Ruben R. Ramirez/The El Paso Times/AP-File
Lorenzo García
El Paso, Texas
64,000 students

A new state-appointed board is looking for a permanent replacement for Mr. García, the superintendent who was imprisoned after being convicted of two counts of fraud. Vernon L. Butler is serving as interim superintendent.

8 of 17

—Charlie Nye/The Indianapolis Star/AP-File
Eugene G. White
30,000 students

The Indianapolis school board is searching for a permanent replacement for Mr. White, who announced his departure in January. Peggy Hinckley is interim superintendent.

9 of 17

—Nikki Boertman/Memphis Commercial Appeal/Zuma-File
Kriner Cash
Memphis, Tenn.
105,000 students

The newly unified school board of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems recently suspended its search for a superintendent until 2014-15. Dorsey E. Hopson II, who replaced Mr. Cash, will continue as interim chief of the merged districts until then.

10 of 17

—Chuck Burton/AP-File
Darryl C. Kilbert
New Orleans
14,000 students (direct-run schools) 8,000 (charter)

The Orleans Parish school board is looking for a permanent leader to replace Mr. Kilbert. Interim Superintendent Stan Smith has been on the job for a year. The small district may regain control of some former schools now run by the state’s Recovery School District.

11 of 17

—Mike Groll/AP-File
Dennis M. Walcott
New York
1.1 million students

Schools Chancellor Walcott has not announced any intention to leave his post, but a mayoral election this fall means that the district may have a new leader next year. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who appointed Mr. Walcott, is not seeking re-election.

12 of 17

—Jessica Olthof/San Francisco Chronicle-File
Tony Smith
Oakland, Calif.
35,000 students

Superintendent Smith resigned in April, citing family reasons. Acting Superintendent Gary Yee was appointed for the 2013-14 school year while the school board searches for a replacement.

13 of 17

—Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty-File
William R. Hite Jr.
Prince George’s, Md.
124,000 students

Mr. Hite, the district’s most recent permanent superintendent, left last summer to lead the Philadelphia district. Interim Superintendent Alvin L. Crawley will depart in June. The county’s chief executive will select the district’s first CEO from a state-vetted list of candidates.

14 of 17

—Joe Mahoney/Richmond Times-Dispatch-File
Yvonne W. Brandon
Richmond, Va.
24,000 students

The Richmond school board is searching for a replacement for Ms. Brandon, who announced her retirement in April. Richmond’s mayor does not have any direct authority in the school system, but wants to work with the school board to select the new superintendent.

15 of 17

—Rich Pedroncelli/AP-File
Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana
Santa Ana, Calif.
56,000 students (including charter schools)

The Santa Ana school board is searching for a successor to Ms. Meléndez de Santa Ana, who announced in April that she is retiring this summer after two years as superintendent.

16 of 17

—Chris Seward/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT-File
Anthony J. Tata
Wake County, N.C.
150,000 students

The Wake County school board is searching for a permanent replacement for Mr. Tata, who is now North Carolina’s transportation secretary. Interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey is leaving the post at the end of June.

17 of 17

The search for a new leader can prompt a board or mayor to ask, “Are you pursuing the right reforms for the right reasons?” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, in Washington.

Seasonal Churn

The number of vacancies is not in itself unusual, said Mr. Casserly. Superintendents tend to stay in urban districts for three to four years. And spring is when many leaders announce their intentions for the upcoming school year.

His organization usually sees between eight and 12 of its members searching for new leaders each year. (This year, there are 10 so far.)

Andrés Alonso, who announced last week that he will retire after six years as Baltimore’s superintendent, said there has been speculation every year since he arrived that the high-profile leader would be departing for a bigger city. He is leaving instead to become a professor of practice at Harvard University and to care for his aging parents.

But that churn at the top is detrimental for districts striving for improvements that take time to implement, said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, in Alexandria, Va.

Boards searching for new district leaders have to make sure a candidate is suited to the district’s particular challenges, Mr. Casserly said. Those challenges range from cyclical duties, such as contract negotiations and bond levies, to the more unusual, such as a court order or a scandal.

In Boston, for instance, a new leader will have the task of implementing the city’s first new student-assignment plan in decades, said Michael D. O’Neill, the chairman of the Boston school committee.

In Memphis, a new leader in 2014-15 must preside over a newly merged school system that includes schools from the neighboring suburban district in Shelby County.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Columbus, and El Paso, new leaders will need to help regain community trust after widely publicized scandals alleging or involving cheating by teachers or administrators on student tests.

Chains of Command

State- and city-level involvement in the governance of many urban districts—through arrangements like mayoral control or state takeovers—means that superintendent searches can be slowed or shaped by outside political factors.

“With mayoral involvement or state involvement [in school districts], you have a more complex government arrangement. The new breed of superintendent has to have the skill set and knowledge base and hopefully some experience in working across government agencies,” said Mr. Wong.

In Boston, where Superintendent Carol R. Johnson is retiring after six years, longtime Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a driving force in school improvement efforts over his 20 years as mayor, is also not seeking re-election.

Mr. O’Neill said that the school board will likely wait until a new mayor is elected to select a permanent superintendent.

In Camden and Prince George’s County, incoming leaders will be the first to navigate new governance structures.

Camden’s school board had been searching for a permanent chief since last year. But a state takeover early in April puts the state squarely in charge of finding that person.

In Prince George’s County, the school board already had been searching for a permanent superintendent to replace William R. Hite Jr. when the Maryland legislature made key changes to the district’s governance.

The new law shifts the responsibility for picking the board’s chairman and vice chairman and the district leader—newly dubbed a chief executive officer and vested with new powers, such as the authority to close schools—into the hands of the county executive. The executive will choose the district CEO from a group of candidates selected by a state-appointed committee.

Given such varied governance structures, running a school system “takes enormous understanding of the local context,” said Mr. Alonso, the departing Baltimore chief. “In many cities, there’s a variability and complexity to how districts are organized. It’s no longer standardized,” he said.

Complex Structures

His district, New York City, and New Orleans, for instance, have reinvented themselves as “portfolio districts” emphasizing school-level autonomy. Rising numbers of charter schools complicate district management in other districts as well.

In Detroit, Indianapolis, Memphis, and New Orleans, the public school landscape includes state-run schools, charter schools, and regular public schools.

Andy Smarick, a Lawrenceville, N.J.-based partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization, suggested that in some urban districts, the timing may be right for new leaders to push districts even further toward shrinking their central offices and decreasing the number of schools directly run by the district, among other changes.

“I think we’re going to know a lot about the next decade of urban education reform by seeing who winds up getting picked to be superintendent,” Mr. Smarick said.

“In places like Louisiana, places with mayoral control, … places with state-run districts, … there’s a growing number of cities where it appears likely that a different type of candidate with a different type of message has the ability to take control.”

But Mr. Casserly was skeptical that such changes would be widely pursued.

“There has been a diversification of public education,” he said, “particularly in cities—the rise of educational management and charter organizations and the like—but I think they’re jumping the gun by saying that suddenly we’re on the cusp of a huge governance revolution.”

In Indianapolis, however, where the state recently took over four schools and where the idea of mayoral control has been floated, some school board members are considering dramatic change.

“We’re talking potentially about the dismantlement of the entire central office and reworking it into something that gives more autonomy,” school board President Diane Arnold said. “We need that person that can work with us in a partnership to make that happen.”

Ms. Arnold said the district’s job description specifies that a new superintendent must support school-level autonomy.

Jean-Claude Brizard, who was the CEO of the Chicago schools from May 2011 until October 2012 and is now a senior adviser for the New York City-based College Board, said that leaders can support autonomy, but it requires a mindset different from the one many superintendents have had.

“I think [that kind of leadership] is harder,” he said. “You don’t feel as much in control.”

Both Mr. Domenech—a former chief of the Fairfax County, Va., schools—and Mr. Brizard said that qualified candidates often are not interested in the demands and public scrutiny of the superintendency.

The recent indictment of retired Atlanta schools Superintendent Beverly Hall in the wake of a cheating scandal in that district has added one more layer of complexity to the task of luring candidates to the job, Mr. Brizard said.

“What’s difficult about the superintendency is that you’re not only an educator, you’re a politician,” he said. “And now—oh, my God—you can go to jail. That’s a whole different dynamic.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2013 edition of Education Week as Wanted: Schools Chiefs for Big-Name Districts


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