31 March 2008

Pale Rider

  • $275K salary? Check
  • $2M consulting budget? Check
  • Lincoln Town Car with driver? Check
  • Bodyguard? Check

If you have these things, you too, can be the superintendent of Clayton County schools in Georgia.

From the Christian Science Monitor:

Fewer qualified candidates, rising expectations, and a near-impossible job description are creating a new breed of superintendents: Call them central office rock stars. These candidates say that, for the right price, they're willing to do an unpopular job that can take a heavy personal and professional toll to whip underperforming districts into shape.

The trend is exacerbated in struggling minority districts – many in the South – the very ones feeling the greatest pinch from new federal and state accountability laws.

"This group of superstars who are acting as basically consultants and doing all the dirty work, that's becoming more common, unfortunately," says Jim Harvey, a senior fellow at the Center for Reinventing Public Education in Seattle.

Dirty work? Hey, it's not like these people are actually facing the daily rigors of the classroom.

Some aren't concerned because they see hiring such superstars as a stop-gap measure while compensation and skill requirements adjust to new expectations for school leadership.

Others say it is forcing school boards to pay high premiums for short-lived tenures – and gains. "To come in and ask for that kind of money knowing they won't last more than a year and a half, it's nothing but a big scam – almost racketeering," says John Trotter, head of the Metro Association of Classroom Educators, a for-profit Georgia teachers union.

The pipeline is drying up even as the number of US school districts, because of consolidation, has dropped from 35,000 in 1965 to 13,000 today. Some 20 percent of school districts are actively looking for a superintendent, according to the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

That's because principals and central office staff who would typically fill the superintendent job say accountability standards and politicized school boards mean it's not worth the hassle.

Now, I would agree with that. The superintendency is much more of a political role than an educational leadership role these days. But huge salaries and perks just to be the school board's punch bag?

For school boards, the search for a competent bureaucrat has turned into a quest for a savior. "A lot of districts are looking for a person on a white horse, which is unfortunate because most people don't ride white horses," says former superintendent Paul Houston, director of the AASA in Arlington, Va. "The odds of getting the right fit has gone way down.... Competition is fierce for these people."

In 1990, a typical opening for a superintendent would bring in about 250 applications, says Richard Greene, a former superintendent leading the search in Clayton County. "Today, if you get 30 or 40 it's phenomenal," he says.

As a result, average salaries have increased from about $110,000 10 years ago to more than $200,000 a year today. Total compensation packages for larger districts are in the $325,000 range. Today, big-city superintendents stay an average of 18 months, says Dr. Greene of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates in Glenview, Ill. For suburban districts, average tenure hovers around three years, he says.

Superintendents often work 80-hour weeks and routinely have to juggle politics, policy, and management without generating negative headlines. With many capable bureaucrats choosing not to apply, short-term turnaround specialists are finding a niche, experts say.

In other words, if you're willing to be the most hated person in a school district---and go in like a junkyard dog for a year or so to shake things up, there's a lot of money to be had. Anyone out there willing to saddle up?

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