Increasingly, school districts seek nontraditional chiefs

April 09, 1995|By Jordana Hart | Jordana Hart,Boston Globe

In Minneapolis, a consultant and former Minnesota finance commissioner with no experience in the field of education has been superintendent of public schools since December 1993.

In Milwaukee, the former director of Milwaukee County's health and human services department and one-time dean of a technical college now runs the public schools.

And a management consultant with a master's degree in business administration and some college teaching experience was hired six months ago to run the 20,000-student suburban Federal Way school district in the state of Washington.

The three superintendents represent a pioneering group in U.S. education: school chiefs with little or no experience in school administration. Increasingly, school boards and mayors are calling for search teams to locate nontraditional candidates, but few school boards have actually hired such candidates.

For example, with Boston's school superintendent, Lois Harrison-Jones, stepping down June 30 when her four-year contract expires, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has said he would be interested in hiring someone from outside public education.

"It could be someone from the business world or someone who's been a college president," Mr. Menino said. "It doesn't have to be someone who has been a superintendent. I want somebody who can lead."

Education and management-search specialists say only a handful of school systems nationwide have actually hired their top school administrator from outside education.

"This is not a tidal wave coming. The jury is still out because it is too new a phenomenon," said Ira Krinsky, managing vice president of a Los Angeles search firm, Korn/Ferry International.

Mr. Krinsky and other observers say resistance from parents' groups and teacher unions, as well as fear of what is unusual and still untested, is mainly what hinders communities from hiring nontraditional superintendents. Also, in many states a superintendent with no educational training would require a waiver from the state Board of Education, which can be a lengthy process.

But tight finances and classrooms foundering in academic mediocrity are pushing school boards to cast a wider net as they search for the right superintendent.

"I had voted no. I wasn't ready to take the giant leap into the business world," said Helen Pepper, president of the Federal Way school board. "But I am happy and kind of surprised. Traditional superintendents have a tendency to be educators, which is good. But their business is also management, and they often have no training in that."

Peter Hutchinson, whose company, Public Strategies Inc., was hired to help the Minneapolis school district out of tough financial straits in 1992, was brought on in 1993 as superintendent.

Mr. Hutchinson said outsiders like himself are able -- and often more willing -- to ask fundamental questions about outdated methods and management systems that longtime educators often perceive as normal.

"There is some advantage to knowing less. We get to ask questions about things that other people take for granted," Mr. ,, Hutchinson said.

But Gary Marx, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents, said it is vital that the head of a school system have educational expertise.

"Generally, it is important for someone who provides leadership to have walked a mile in the shoes of those people he or she leads," he said.

Like the communities in many states, Massachusetts cities and towns do not have a record of hiring superintendents from outside the established corridors of education.

The lone exception, according to local school observers, has been Philip E. Geiger, hired by the Lexington (Mass.) School Committee in 1988 as superintendent. He left in 1991.

Dr. Geiger, who has an MBA, also has master's degrees and doctoral degrees in education. But when Lexington hired him, he had spent years managing an international real estate firm in London. He went on to run the Piscataway, N.J., public schools and now is an executive with Education Alternatives Inc., the private company running schools in Baltimore and Hartford, Conn.

"This is really the best of both worlds. I understand business well, but I also understand the education process well," Dr. Geiger said in a recent interview. "But running schools is more complex. It has politics and it has a science to it -- the science of how to educate children."

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