With new demands and few resources, superintendents sit in the hot seat

December 26, 1990|By New York Times News Service

Urban school superintendents across the nation have been quitting in droves, being dismissed or retiring early, often because they have failed to deliver the quick educational fixes demanded of them.

More than 15 major cities are scrambling to find school chiefs, nearly three times the usual number in a given year, experts say. And the searches for new superintendents are getting harder.

"People have gotten to the point where they just don't want these jobs," said Floretta B. McKenzie, a former superintendent in Washington who now runs a consulting company that recruits superintendents.

The problem, many educators say, is that running an urban school system is getting more difficult.

The superintendents are grappling not only with low reading scores and disenchanted teachers but also with crumbling school buildings, squabbling politicians, declining tax revenues and a host of intractable problems associated with poverty, including high rates of violence, homelessness and drug abuse.

The situation is prompting some educators to question the governing structures of school systems, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and to ask whether a new training system is needed to develop an adequate pipeline of potential superintendents.

Michael Usdan, the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, says future superintendents will probably need to learn more about business-style management techniques and politics.

"Right now most of them teach school, then become principals and keep moving up the traditional career ladder," Mr. Usdan said. "But today they have to be experts on budgets. Walk on water with various constituencies. Know something about collective bargaining. Be familiar with AIDS and drug issues. They really have to be Renaissance men."

Spots are vacant in Boston; Washington; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; Houston; El Paso, Texas; Hartford, Conn.; Tucson, Ariz.; Indianapolis; and Milwaukee, among others. Baltimore's Richard C. Hunter was told this month that he would not be rehired when his contract runs out next year.

The average tenure in the job has dropped to about 2.5 years from nearly five years in the early 1980s, said Samuel Husk, executive director of the Council on Great City Schools.

About one-third of the superintendents have been dismissed, sometimes in a hail of controversy.

"Superintendents rarely go quietly into the night," Mr. Husk said.

For instance, in Washington earlier this month, Andrew Jenkins was dismissed during a tumultuous three-hour school board meeting in which demonstrators hurled debris at the board members. One member sustained minor cuts when hit in the head by a water pitcher.

Willie Herenton, who resigned as the head of the Memphis, Tenn., school system this year after 11 years in the job, said: "As an educator I became totally frustrated. When you sit in the hot seat, you've got to have the feeling that it's worth it."

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