Experts say Dallas not alone in superintendent problems Nation's big cities struggling to find, retain qualified leaders

Sunday, July 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – Milwaukee schoolteacher Paulette Copeland said she knows all too well what can happen when a school district loses its superintendent: Priorities change, students suffer and problems remain.

Milwaukee is on its fourth permanent superintendent in five years.

"Even though they're changing this person every year or two, the school system stays the same," said Ms. Copeland, president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. "I don't care who the superintendent is. I don't care how good the superintendent is. He or she is not going to go into a school system and change it overnight."

As Dallas leaders embark on their third superintendent search in four years, educators and parents begin a process that has become commonplace around the country.

Since April 1999, 14 of the nation's 25 largest school districts have replaced their superintendents or launched searches for a new leader. In at least eight of those cases, the deposed superintendents had trouble getting along with school board members or other elected officials.

"If misery loves company on this issue, Dallas has lots of company," said Michael D. Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington group that helps develop leadership skills among educators and superintendents. "Every city in the United States would have some egg on its face."

Turnover has always been a problem in big-city school districts. But the situation is worse today, experts said, because of the public's unrelenting demand for higher test scores, the renewed political focus on education standards, the aging pool of superintendents and a shortage of qualified principals and teachers who want to take their place.

The revolving door raises concerns about the ability of urban schools to innovate, focus on struggling students and improve test scores.

"I'm reminded of an old African proverb: When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

"The adults are fighting with each other, and the children are getting trampled in the process," he said. "When you get into that kind of turmoil, you have huge negative implications on the system, on the kids in the system. That's the tragedy right now."

Consider New York City. Rudy Crewwas ousted as schools chancellor in December after public disagreements with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani about school vouchers and budget priorities. Dr. Crew's predecessor, Ramon Cortines, quit five years earlier after accusing the mayor of meddling in the school system's budget and activities.

Or take Philadelphia. Superintendent David Hornbeck announced his resignation last month after he and state lawmakers quarreled over financial support for his district. Rather than trigger a state takeover of the city's schools, the district had agreed to cut $30 million from its budget, jeopardizing Mr. Hornbeck's school-reform agenda.

Or look at Detroit. The Michigan legislature passed a bill last year that dissolved the school board and transferred control to a reform board appointed by Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and Gov. John Engler. One candidate for the district's top job failed to win the support of the governor's board appointee. After a second round of interviews, the board chose Kenneth Burnley, who had been superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Leadership experience

Paul Vallas had no school leadership experience when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley tapped him to head the city's public schools in June 1995. The Illinois legislature had just given the mayor control of Chicago's embattled schools, and Mr. Daley turned to Mr. Vallas, his budget director, to bring about stability.

Mr. Vallas has achieved tangible results. After inheriting a projected $150 million budget deficit, he produced five annual balanced budgets,and the district received 11 upgrades from bond-rating agencies. He also inked two consecutive four-year labor pacts with the city's teachers, following 15 years of labor unrest. Test scores have improved five years in a row.

Mr. Vallas' colleagues around the country call him a success story, and his tenure is twice the average of an urban superintendent. Yet, Mr. Vallas said he operates at the mayor's discretion and compared himself to Walt Alston, the longtime Los Angeles Dodgers manager who never had more than a one-year contract.

"If you perform, you stay. If you don't perform, you go," Mr. Vallas said. "I've never accepted a contract, and I just operate from year to year. As long as I've got public support, I'll stay. As long as I've got the mayor's support and the mayor thinks I've done a good job, I'll stay."

Like Chicago, other cities have chosen leaders from outside the education profession. Just last month, the Los Angeles school board selected former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who had also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Mr. Vallas attributed some of his success to the fact that the school system's seven-member corporate board is appointed by the mayor, not elected by the public. That eliminates internal board politicking, he said. And because the mayor is ultimately responsible for the performance of the schools, he devotes significant time, money and lobbying to ensuring success.

"School board elections don't generate a lot of involvement," Mr. Vallas said. "You think you've got public input in the electoral process, but you really don't. Many school board members have close ties to interest groups. And usually people who vote in these elections are only a minority of the registered votes."

Mr. Vallas pointed to Chicago's test scores as proof that improvements don't have to take years. He credited his district's results to eliminating social promotion, raising expectations and making sure that schools had enough supplies and books for all students.

"If you move to impose high standards, if you begin to institute even a modest system of accountability, and if you provide just a minimal system of support programs, there's no reason you can't begin to show some signs of academic improvement right away," he said.

In Milwaukee, the changing makeup of the school board has brought about a rapid succession of superintendents. Two of the four most recent leaders resigned after elections that produced a new board majority demanding major changes.

Bruce Thompson, the current school board president, defended the election system even if it means regularly searching for new superintendents. He said the previous boards lacked a consistent focus, a problem that is gone now that his board is in control.

"Elections should mean something," Mr. Thompson said. "When board members go out and say, 'If I'm elected, this is the direction I'm going to take,' then what they promise should mean something."

Ms. Copeland, president of the Milwaukee teachers' union, sees recent events differently.

One superintendent came into office promising to emphasize early childhood education. Another pledged to focus on multicultural education. The current superintendent is working to create more neighborhood schools and decentralize district operations.

"Each time someone new comes in, they have new ideas," Ms. Copeland said. "You don't get to complete anything. You start on one trail, and then they change superintendents and they ax everything you have been doing."

Mr. Houston of the school administrators group echoed those sentiments.

"It's very difficult to get improvement when you have that much turmoil at the top of an organization, regardless of what the cause might be," he said. "Good people look at this and say, 'I'm going to be there a year or two years and then I'm going to be used up.' It's like a Kleenex approach to leadership."

Stiff competition

If Dallas chooses to look outside the district for a superintendent, it will have stiff competition. Among the large districts looking for superintendents are Philadelphia, Memphis, Denver, Palm Beach County, Fla., and Orange County, Fla.

Since the start of the year, New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Detroit, Baltimore County and Tucson, Ariz., have filled vacancies.

Urban schools face challenges unknown to some suburban districts: poverty, entrenched teachers unions, a high level of social mobility, diversity and a lack of parental involvement.

"Even though superintendents have to be concerned about instructional leadership and student achievement, the social agenda hasn't disappeared in the cities," said Mr. Usdan of the Institute for Educational Leadership. "They have to juggle all this stuff now – the politics, the student achievement, the instruction."

It comes as no surprise to education leaders that the number of applicants for superintendent positions has dropped dramatically from just a few years ago.

Then, districts could count on 50 or more candidates when their top spot opened.

In Broward County, Fla., which has more students than Dallas, last year's search netted 18 candidates, only three of whom had been superintendents.

The aging of the superintendent pool compounds the problem, researchers said. The average age of today's superintendents is 54, four years older than the average a decade ago.Potential successors aren't applying for the superintendent positions, experts said, because they don't want to deal with the daily headaches of the job or the increasingly nasty squabbles with elected officials. Throughout the education profession, there's a shortage of teachers, administrators and principals as people choose more lucrative professions.

Brian Cram, superintendent in Clark County, Nev., retired this month after more than 11 years on the job. Montgomery County superintendent Paul Vance retired in June 1999 after eight years in the position. And Baltimore County, Md., leader Anthony Marchione retired last month after four years.

Mr. Vance came out of retirement this month to lead the District of Columbia's school district. Mr. Cram now works at a foundation.

Widespread crisis

The turnover of superintendents in Texas mirrors the crisis elsewhere. Nearly a quarter of the state's 1,048 school districts search for a new leader each year, said Johnny Veselka, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators in Austin.

Of the state's eight urban school districts, only Fort Worth and Houston have long-standing superintendents.

San Antonio, Austin, El Paso and Ysleta have hired leaders in the past 18 months; Dallas and Corpus Christi are searching. The former superintendents of all six districts quarreled with their school boards before leaving, Dr. Veselka said.

"There is certainly a revolving door, and what I would term a crisis in terms of instability of leadership," Dr. Veselka said.

"Boards and communities need to come together around a leader and give that individual an opportunity to provide leadership over an extended period of time."

Some of Dallas' outspoken school board critics maintain that the city's problems are worse than elsewhere.

"Dallas just doesn't seem to quite get its act together, unlike Chicago or Houston, which appear to be turning their districts around," said Texas state Rep. Domingo Garcia, D-Dallas.

"There's sort of a vacuum of power where nobody's in charge and nobody's accountable."

School board President Roxan Staff said she agrees with some of what Mr. Garcia said. But instead of blaming the school board, she pointed a finger at the residents of Dallas who don't vote in elections.

"In May, we had trustees elected with fewer votes than a high school student council election," she said. "When you have a district of 90,000 voters and only 1,400 come out and vote, what kind of accountability is that?

"If time after time, board members run unopposed or their opposition is so weak they can't even put out yard signs, we have a public that has disengaged."

Houston superintendent Rod Paige, who has held his position for six years, said the key to a leader's success is the involvement of business groups and civic leaders in the district's affairs. That will ensure stability, he said, and will prevent infighting among board members.

"The same guys that come together to bring a professional football team or the Olympics to the city have to be in place to get a good school system functioning," Dr. Paige said.

"All these groups come together, and they set aside their individual interests to support a common cause. That's the kind of support the public school system needs."

That advice does not appear to be well-received in Dallas, where a coalition of community groups last week condemned the role of local business leaders in the superintendent search.

Dr. Paige said the leadership job takes its toll. "This is a big responsibility. You have to have a screw loose somewhere to try to do this."