School chiefs face pressure

Tenure: More turnover is seen among suburban superintendents contending with rising demands.

January 24, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Since the turn of the 20th century, when Howard County was a rural outpost, its school superintendents have had a remarkable level of job security: None has held the job for less than 16 years.

But with Superintendent John R. O'Rourke facing dismissal even before his four-year contract ends, Maryland's top-performing school district has joined a nationwide trend of suburban school chiefs with shorter, more volatile tenures.

"If you go back to the middle of the last century, typical tenures were 20 years, 25 years," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Today, if you find that, that's extremely unusual."

Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith is even more blunt about the realities he and his colleagues face: "You have to go into the job with an understanding that you're doing so with a fair amount of personal risk."

Urban school districts have long had a high turnover rate for superintendents - average tenures last less than three years - because of such challenges as poverty and poor performance.

Suburban schools chiefs, by contrast, typically have enjoyed more job security.

But financial crises, opinionated officials and rising expectations for students on high-stakes tests are beginning to take their toll on suburban superintendents.

In the Baltimore area alone:

Stuart Berger, a Baltimore County superintendent in the early 1990s, was bought out of his contract after three years of friction with parents and elected officials over academic reforms and fiscal disputes.

C. Berry Carter II, an Anne Arundel County superintendent, was replaced in 1993 after one year, on the heels of several sex scandals involving students and teachers and allegations that the school system ignored complaints.

Jeffery Grotsky, a Harford County schools chief, was dismissed in 1998 after less than two years, amid criticism of his management style, which some considered harsh.

William H. Hyde, a Carroll County schools chief, resigned in 2000 after a two-year tenure marked by allegations of mismanagement. (Hyde was convicted last year of sexually abusing an elementary school-age girl, a case unrelated to his resignation.)

Even private schools have changed. The tenures of many headmasters have been cut short in recent years as trustees and parents have become more demanding, spurred on by rising tuitions and a loss of the reverential attitude that headmasters once enjoyed, private school leaders say.

High turnover in leadership can mean less stability at all levels of a school or district, some experts say.

"It's very hard to get any kind of momentum or traction," Houston says. "People see the change at the top ... [and they] try to just hunker down and wait it out." He cites troubled public school districts such as Washington, D.C., which has seen five superintendents in the past seven years.

However, says Robert Y. Dubel, a Baltimore County superintendent for 16 years until he retired in 1992, the rising pressures on leaders could be worthwhile if they yield dynamic approaches to education.

Still, Dubel says he enjoyed being superintendent in a simpler era. "The main thing about us is that we picked a smart time to be born," he says.

Superintendencies today are more short-lived than in the past, experts say, even as the jobs continue to command mounting six-figure salaries. Anne Arundel's Smith and Howard's O'Rourke each earn nearly $200,000 a year.

"They've become almost as mobile as college basketball coaches," says Ted Mitchell, a former dean of the graduate school of education at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Superintendents are typically now one vote away from being ousted."

Some experts say it's partly because the political landscape around schools has grown more complex.

The public has grown more accustomed to holding superintendents responsible when children fail high-stakes tests or schools fail to show the progress required by increased state and federal mandates.

And as suburbs absorb families from urban areas and become less homogeneous, experts say, tensions arise over the need to help struggling students while satisfying the demands of affluent parents and high-achievers.

Faced with these pressures, superintendents are more likely to be micromanaged by school boards and parents.

"Today, you see a lot of board members who are there to be served," Houston says. "They're there because they have an agenda, and they see the superintendent as being a lot more expendable."

And parents are more assertive and savvy about how to pressure a schools chief.

Carroll County schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker says he is challenged by parents even on decisions such as whether to close schools when it snows. "It seems about every decision that is made is questioned."

In Anne Arundel County, different groups of parents have called for Smith's removal several times during his 1 1/2 -year tenure, for reasons ranging from academic changes he made to a high school principal he hired.

Smith said he can't please everyone, so he focuses on doing what he believes is right.

"There's no guarantees in this," he says. "Boards change over a four-year period. Community reactions and pressures change. ... If you set out to try to control the politics ... you fail on a lot of fronts."

But Smith and other superintendents acknowledge that it's crucial for them to maintain good relationships with their school board and community.

Berger, who was forced out of Baltimore County in 1995, says schools chiefs will face difficulties as long as they are dragged into politics. "The superintendency's a soap opera," he says.

Sun staff writer Sandy Alexander contributed to this article.

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