2012

2 May 2012: Superintendent a super-touch job

Superintendent a super-tough job

This week the Clear Creek School District begins anew a search for a superintendent.  It seems it’s become a biennial event, with a revolving door to the superintendent’s office.

In fairness though, two of the last several have had to call it quits for health issues, which is unfortunate because both Doug Price and Bill Patterson were top tier.  I don’t throw that compliment around lightly, for my experience has shown superintendents to be more political front men/women than educational leaders.  Maybe it helped that Doug and Bill were former English teachers.

I’m fond of paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s observation about democracy—the worst system save all the rest—and apply that succinct observation to capitalism.

In terms of public education governance however, that aphorism doesn’t quite apply.  The practice of school boards hiring superintendents has evolved over the course of our history.  I’m beginning to wonder, though, whether that tradition is the worst system of governance including all the rest.

“They comes and they goes,” as my old friend once said, and life continues beyond and, at times, despite their tenure because what ultimately makes it work happens in the classroom.  Over time, my best hope has morphed from resigned pragmatism to one of superintendents taking a cue from the medical oath: Do no harm.

In the earlier part of my career, superintendents were entities who remained blissfully ignorant of who I was, the issues with which I dealt, and the needs I had.  Life went on despite their coming and going, that is until the neo-educationists seized the helm of the discussion about public education.

What I’ve learned is that a board of education never admits it made a mistake in hiring a certain individual.  It’s not above, however, giving him/her a nice severance package that includes a no-comment clause and sending him/her on his/her merry way a few bucks better at the public’s expense.

Sen. Michael Bennet was little more than Phil Anschutz’s former rolodex file keeper and then-Denver mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff until ordained to head the Denver Public Schools in July 2005.  His good looks and diligence in making Anschutz richer and keeping the factions in line during Hickenlooper’s mayoralty tenure apparently qualified him to be an educational authority despite zero experience doing something he was to be all-knowledgeable about: teaching.

Perhaps when he’s done reforming the US Senate and remaking it into a functional body, he’ll come home and teach full-time in some inner-city school.  My bet is that he stays in the Senate where his skill set correlates better to his duties.

One could argue superintendents deserve every dollar in compensation.  Their first job, after all, is to work with and hopefully manage what is often a divided group: the school board.

During my role as teacher leader, I had developed a functional working relationship with my district’s superintendent.  In our private, off-the-record discussions, he told me about the balancing act he performed to keep the BOE heading in one direction.

It comes down to the core issue of leadership: Who’s in charge?  Does the BOE step out of the way once the individual is installed or is it a meddlesome or recalcitrant board that keeps interfering with the day-to-day operation of the district?

Is it a divided board?  A non-divided board is an anomaly, indeed.  Despite being ostensibly non-partisan and the near unanimity of votes, back-biting and personal conflicts and agendas pervade.  That reality ought not to be a surprise: School board members are elected and answerable to their constituencies like every other politician.

After keeping his/her bosses in line, the superintendent needs to balance the rest of the stakeholders and interests groups: teachers, parents, taxpayers, businesses, and political powers from on high.

As my old superintendent pointed out when we were hashing out the particulars of some policy, “We have different interests, and we each need to be advocating for them.”

Transfer that notion from the district-teacher relationship to all the others, and you can see the immense burden a superintendent carries.  No wonder their average lifespan in CCSD of late is less than five years, which is the average across the nation.

The screening and interviewing committees will assess all the applicants and do their best in determining which has the strongest skill set and personality to the lead the CCSD.  They’ll likely raise probing questions about particular issues such as performance pay for teachers.

Finally, after much back and forth, the BOE will settle on one individual because they have to.  Then in a couple years, we’ll repeat the process.  In other words, “they comes and they goes.”

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