State educators and lawmakers devote so much time and attention to dealing with teacher shortages that a looming deficit of qualified school superintendents has gone practically unnoticed, according to education expert Bruce Cooper.
The problem is particularly acute in big cities. Roughly a dozen urban school districts, including New York and Los Angeles, have interim superintendents because they can't find the right man or woman for the job. Over the last 11 months, Detroit has launched three unsuccessful searches to locate someone to head its school system.
Often, qualified candidates find that salaries in the low six-figure range aren't sufficient compensation for having to confront political intrigue, lack of resources and declining student test scores on a regular basis.
"There is a general lack of respect for the superintendent. They become someone to attack when things don't go well," says Cooper, a Fordham University education professor who's co-authored a study titled "Career Crisis in the School Superintendency."
When it comes to identifying superintendents for large school districts, the candidate pool seems to be limited to the same 10 or so hopefuls, says James Walker, a member of Baltimore County's school board. Walker is currently seeking someone to head Baltimore County's 106,000-student system.
"The same persons are applying where all the vacancies are," Walker says. "I guess it's because they have demonstrated the expertise needed in urban areas. There isn't that much new blood in the pool."
Of the 14,300 or so school superintendents nationwide, most started as teachers during the Vietnam War era and worked their way up the chain of command. An astounding 82 percent of superintendents have already reached retirement age, according to Cooper's study.
That's the case with Baltimore County's superintendent, Anthony G. Marchione, who's retiring after a 37-year career in education.
While the average tenure for school superintendents is seven to nine years, turnover occurs every 2.5 years in urban school systems.
"If you make God the New York City Chancellor, She wouldn't succeed," Cooper says. "Everyone is second guessing you, from the mayor, to the city council, to the teachers, to the parents. There is no way to win."
Principals and teachers often lose their motivation to implement reforms when new superintendents come in with new ideas, then leave before they're implemented, says E. Joseph Schneider of the American Association of School Administrators.
Ohio's board of education is throwing money at the head of Columbus' school system, Rosa Smith, to make sure she stays. If Smith, who started in December, remains on the job until 2005 she'll get an additional $73,000.
Look for salaries of $200,000 or higher to become commonplace. The new superintendent for Montgomery County, Maryland, is being paid in that range and neighboring school districts will have to follow suit to attract the best candidates, says Walker, of Baltimore County's school board.
Along with salaries more in line with Corporate America, expect more private-sector yardsticks for measuring superintendent performance.
Harold Levy a former Citigroup lawyer and the current interim Chancellor for New York City, wants to base job evaluations on private sector criteria. He's going to review all 32 of his superintendents this June based on student test scores, budget, strategies for improving teacher quality and teacher recruitment tactics.
"Management isn't to us what it is to the private sector," warns Michael Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools. "Effective management gets you better profits. Better management in urban education . . . doesn't necessarily get us better test scores."
However, more and more districts are looking at businesspeople and former military officers as potential superintendents, instead of considering just career educators.
Cooper says that states could make it easier to attract and keep superintendents if they make pensions portable across state lines, promote and fast track younger leaders and provide more training colleges.
"President (Clinton) talks about training 100,000 new teachers, but I didn't hear him say anything about superintendents," Cooper says. "If you don't have good leadership it isn't going to matter because nobody wants to work for a bad superintendent."