Top post demands top salary for reason

Superintendents: With the push to raise student performance quickly and pressure from parents and politicians, schools chiefs are in an unenviable position.

April 28, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

When Stuart Berger slipped out through a window of the Baltimore County school board headquarters one night in 1993, with a screaming mob of parents and teachers advancing toward him, he made what he now says was the biggest mistake of his career.

He let them see him sweat.

"I knew instantly it was a disaster," the former Baltimore County school superintendent recalled last week. "The police told me to go out this window. I said, `Nobody's going to hurt me. I'm not scared.' But I deferred to them."

Berger's experience that night vividly illustrated the mounting pressures faced by the superintendents of big school systems and showed it's not enough anymore to just be a good educator.

Superintendents must be equally at home in corporate boardrooms and school classrooms. Their job requirements now include raising test scores, closing racial achievement gaps, squeezing money from private businesses and responding to the ever-shifting demands of parents and politicians.

"You do have to have a very broad skill set," says Eric J. Smith, who is superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system and is close to a deal to become Anne Arundel County's schools chief.

"You have to know business, and you have to know instruction. You've got to understand politics, and you've got to be very, very good at it. You need to have good, crisp communication skills. And you need to have sensitivity - to listen to and understand the demands of the community."

And, increasingly, you have to deliver faster than Domino's.

With students taking an increasing battery of tests, communities and school boards have little patience for falling test scores. The average tenure for superintendents has fallen from about 14 years to 5 years in the last half-century, studies show.

Superintendents in big cities have even shorter life spans - about 3 1/2 years, says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"These superintendents are being asked to make bricks without straw, and do it without having a lot of authority," says Houston, a former schools chief in Princeton, N.J., and Tucson, Ariz.

Superintendents, he says, aren't really the ones running school systems: "You've got school boards out of control. You've got very powerful teachers unions. You've got the state peeking over your shoulder and the courts intervening. The superintendent is everyone's designated scapegoat."

No wonder it's hard to find anyone who wants the job.

Houston says that though women fill about 60 percent of the upper level school management jobs, they account for only 15 percent of superintendents nationwide. There are plenty of qualified people for the job, he says. They're just not willing to do it.

"If you're an assistant superintendent and you've got a family and you're happy where you are, why would you want another $20,000 and all the abuse and crap that goes with it?" he says.

Current and former superintendents say the job leaves little time for family or privacy. If you do the job right, you're at school and community events almost every night. People stare at you in restaurants and stop you in shopping malls and supermarkets.

When he was in Wichita, Kan., Berger says, he once ran though a mall "like some kind of movie star" to avoid detection while getting a last-minute birthday gift for his daughter.

More pressure came, he says, from the politicians and unions resistant to reform.

Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger ran for office by feeding off the antipathy for Berger when he was superintendent there.

"If you saw his ads, you thought he was running against me," Berger says.

His predecessor in Baltimore County, Robert Dubel, was superintendent for 16 years and had a listed telephone number the whole time.

People called him at all hours to complain about schools and teachers and, on snowy mornings, to ask if he was going to close schools.

"It just comes with the job," Dubel says now. "People have no idea that you have more than 100,000 children to deal with and we had more than 10,000 employees. They can't relate to that bigness." County politicians would sometimes ask him to hire one of their friends or fire one of their enemies, he says, adding that he never complied.

"It was tough to resist that interference," Dubel says, noting that the County Council controlled his budget. "But I made it clear we weren't going to make decisions influenced by politics."

There's no shortage of opinions about how to run schools, and superintendents are constantly defending their policies from those who claim to know better.

"Everyone considers himself or herself an expert because everybody has gone to school," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "That's not true in other professions. People are more deferential to doctors and lawyers."

Grasmick, who has held her job for 11 years, says she has survived for so long because she has maintained her focus on helping children - and hasn't set her sights elsewhere.

She says she has been asked seven times to run for lieutenant governor, and seven times she has said no.

Many superintendents have simply left public service altogether.

Berger now runs his own education management company based in Towson, where he says he has less stress and makes more money.

The national shortage of superintendents has made it possible for those who are willing to do the job - and especially those who are good at it - to command top salaries.

Anne Arundel County has offered Smith, who has raised test scores in Charlotte for five years running, a total compensation package worth $300,000, including a $197,000 base salary.

Dallas just gave its new schools chief a $400,000 package.

"There's a dearth of people, and that's why salaries are going so high," Berger says. "Headhunters ask me if I'm thinking about going back. That's desperation, man."

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