By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer
While school superintendents are retiring in record numbers, school boards locally and across the country are finding that the pool of applicants to fill those posts has shrunk, and those who do apply often are less qualified.
Schools Superintendent Don Darby talks with Princeton Junior High
School 7th grader Marlon Barnett, 13, during a visit to the school
for a principals' meeting.
The pressure and demands of the job, now ramped up by the accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, mean fewer educators want the top post. That is making it tougher for school districts to find an applicant who's just the "right fit" for this crucial position.
Princeton City Schools, a high-profile Tristate district, received only 30 applications to replace retiring Superintendent Don Darby. Twenty years ago, there might have been twice as many, said Al Meloy, a search consultant with the Ohio School Boards Association.
Last year, Wyoming Schools received only 29 applications for superintendent. The low number is surprising, considering that the small, elite district has some of the highest proficiency test scores in the state.
| Superintendent pay
salary nationally: $126,268
Superintendents in districts of
25,000 or more students: $170,024
Superintendents in districts of
10,000 - 24,999: $138,537
Superintendents in districts of
2,500 - 9,999: $121,853
Superintendents in districts of
300 - 2,499: $98,302
Source: Educational Research Service
Like principals, superintendents are in short supply. In fact, at least 30 percent of the superintendent jobs in Ohio are filled by retired superintendents - a trend also seen nationally.
Sycamore Community Schools Superintendent Karen Mantia in 2001 did her doctorate on the topic of the shrinking pool of superintendent applicants.
"It is frightening the lack of eligible or interested people looking to that position," she said. "The number of superintendents that can retire, or already have retired, is staggering. Baby boomers are leaving with no replacements. The shortage is here and only to get worse."
High stress, low rewards
So why don't more people want to be a superintendent?
"The complexity and time demands, the conditions of the work itself cause some talented people not to enter the profession," Mantia said. "For instance, stress, low pay, increased demands from unfunded mandates, higher student performance requirements, greater public expectations, board turnover, diminishing prestige, fear of poor superintendent/board relationships, and inadequate school funding are just a few of the issues that may be discouraging viable candidates from entering the field."
In 1993, when the Winton Woods City Schools hired Thomas Richey as superintendent, the board sorted through 28 applications. When Camille Nasbe was hired in 2002, there were three fewer. The top five in the pool were superbly qualified, said board President John Pennycuff.
"What was surprising in our search was the absence of truly local people. Ten years ago, we had local people applying," he said.
"Based on my experience and anecdotes from board members in other districts, the pools are getting smaller, not only for superintendents but for high school principals. Those are killer jobs, absolute killer jobs, so there are fewer and fewer people who want them."
Along with changing laws, superintendents and principals must deal with the changing expectations of parents.
"They demand their rights for their kids," Pennycuff said. "Parents are militant, as opposed to assuming that the teacher or principal may be correct in some dispute with the child over grades or how much playing time he has on the basketball team.
"Parents come to board meetings, calling everybody racist because their child got a D instead of an A. The bus doesn't stop in front of their house. It stops two doors down."
All of that and more sums up why superintendents and principals are said to carry a roll of Tums in each pocket, he said.
Not all districts have experienced a decline in applicants or quality.
Newport recently received 33 applications to replace Superintendent Dan Sullivan, who is retiring after 47 years in education. "I thought it was an excellent number," Sullivan said.
Northern Kentucky districts may be appealing because they are smaller and may be less problematic than larger districts in Cincinnati, Sullivan said.
Finneytown's recent search to replace retiring Sam Martin yielded 36 candidates. More than 20 applied when Martin was hired four years ago.
"What did hit us this time is that it seemed like, from top to bottom, the overall quality of applicants was better this time than last time," said board member Gary Metzger. "
Metzger understands why the job takes its toll on superintendents. Along with other factors, he said, it doesn't help that the current school funding system in Ohio forces districts to go back to voters for money.
"The levy campaigns are very strenuous and very stressful for administrators and the boards of education," he said. "Superintendents are the point person for those campaigns. They are the lightning rod for the community."
Meanwhile, the unfunded mandates of No Child Left Behind have increased the pressure of accountability for superintendents.
Board members and superintendents alike say districts are being judged by proficiency test results and Local Report Cards, which may not accurately reflect what's happening in their districts. And the only name that appears on that Local Report Card is the superintendent's.
"There will be some good superintendents that are going to be sacrificed because the boards won't be able to stand the heat," said Winton Woods' Pennycuff.
Tom Durbin at Williamsburg Local School District is in his first superintendent's job. The hours are long. His "short" days start with bus duty at 6:30 a.m. and end around 5 p.m. It's not unusual to have three night meetings a week.
"If my children were still at home, I don't think I'd even consider a superintendent's position," he said.
As superintendent of the small Clermont County district of 1,000 students, he wears many hats. He has to handle transportation, special education, buildings and grounds, personnel, curriculum and public relations.
"You also feel the pressure of doing well on the state of Ohio's Local Report Card. After being in 'academic watch,' the relief that I felt when the district reached the 'effective' status was amazing. But then the pressure started right back because now we have to keep the momentum to keep improving."
Pressures and problems aside, Durbin is right where he wants to be.
"I like what I am doing in my role as a superintendent. I learn something new every day and I hope that somehow I am making a difference in the life of a child."
Nationwide, there's been a huge decline in educators applying for superintendent and principal jobs, said Michael Jazzar, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
There are no empirical studies, he said, but conventional wisdom in following these kinds of vacancies reveals there might be 20 to 30 applicants for a huge district when typically 10 or 15 years ago there might have been more than 100.
"Slim supply means little choice in appointment. What's so important is the fit, the academics, the personality, the type of leadership style. When you have a limited pool, you get whatever is available," he said.
Jazzar has some theories about the shortage.
"At one time, when one went into education and educational leadership, it was to do very special things for children, for students. Today the positions are so political, there's hardly any direct contact with children.
"There are boards of education that micromanage to the point of candidates not being interested in those districts. That micromanaging is very harmful. It sends incorrect messages throughout the district and community in terms of educational, instructional and curricular leadership," Jazzar said.
In her research, Mantia learned that salary is another reason educators steer clear of the top job. The salary gap between administrators and teachers is closing, and in some cases a teacher may make more than a superintendent on a per diem basis.
"For the headache of being a superintendent, some folks choose not to take the job because the pay for a year's work is not worth it when compared to lower level positions in administration or in teaching," Mantia said.
Many superintendents are retiring and coming back in another district to fill the void.
At the end of the last school year, Wyoming chose a new superintendent, who then decided not to take the job. That's when Chuck Waple stepped up to become interim superintendent for the 2003-04 school year.
Waple retired as superintendent of Loveland City School District in 1987 but when approached by Wyoming, he felt compelled to help.
"The thing that's changed is all the federal requirements that have come down through No Child Left Behind, state proficiency tests and extreme demand on classroom time," Waple said.
Those demands, he said, are taking away from teaching problem-solving and critical thinking. Creative teaching is diminished by a regimen aligned to state content standards.
Waple has signed on for another year while the school board searches for a permanent superintendent. He agreed to return if the board hired an assistant superintendent.
"That's what they heard from many candidates, why they didn't get an exceptionally strong pool of candidates. The pool of candidates was kind of weak here because of lack of central office help."
The board is completing a search for an assistant superintendent.
Some educators don't seek the top job because they don't like the politics and public criticism that superintendents sometimes have to endure. And a marriage between a school board and a superintendent can end in a messy divorce.
"Education is about people," said Meloy, a former school superintendent. "Every decision we make touches someone's life personally. When that happens, and you're in the key leadership position, those political winds can shift hourly. It becomes a high risk job."
On the flip side, he said, there are still those who have a desire to lead, who bring some extraordinary skills to school districts and believe they can make a difference.
"They are not driven by the downside of the job, but by the potential of the job," Meloy said. "There are still those quality people out there."
Karen Gutierrez contributed. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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