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Published: 2/9/2003

School districts face leadership shortage

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Leadership institute official Michael Wilmot addresses Adrian trustees Gwen Donahue, Paul Mueller, and Jesse Perez about seeking a school superintendent. Leadership institute official Michael Wilmot addresses Adrian trustees Gwen Donahue, Paul Mueller, and Jesse Perez about seeking a school superintendent.
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Michael Wilmot gives advice to the Adrian school board. Michael Wilmot gives advice to the Adrian school board.
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ADRIAN - The seven members of the Adrian Public Schools board know their next five months will be devoted to one thing: looking for the best possible leader for the school district.

The same is true for hundreds of school board members across the country.

That's what makes the superintendent search in this small Lenawee County district a highly competitive, selective, and somewhat daunting task.

Nationwide, quality superintendents are nearly as highly sought after as talented sports players.

Experts say it's the pressures and pay scale of superintendents that has made the field less and less attractive for newcomers. Teachers who at one time might have aspired to an administrative role now find there is not enough of an incentive to take on the additional responsibility.

Add to that the increasing number of retiring superintendents as the baby boomers come to retirement age and the nonportability of pension funds between states, and school boards are discovering that the superintendent candidate pool is looking more like a puddle.

“This has been coming on for at least five years,” said Kathleen Booher of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. “We've been seeing fewer applications for superintendencies and fewer of them who are actually qualified for the role.”

“I think using the term `endangered species' is not at all off base,” she added.

Positions that at one time attracted more than 40 applications are now of interest to no more than a dozen to 20 candidates, studies of American Association of School Administrators show.

According to the American Association of School Administrators, the average tenure of a superintendent nationwide is about six years.

In Adrian, Michael Wilmot of Michigan Leadership Institute asked board members to consider the types of candidates they and the community would like to see. He then reminded them that candidates will be interviewing the community at the same time they are being interviewed by the board.

In addition to Adrian, superintendents in several area school districts have announced their resignations, including Litchfield Community Schools in Hillsdale County, Jefferson Schools in Monroe County, and Sylvania City Schools in Lucas County. The vacancies - occurring for different reasons - send each of the districts into the uncertain world of superintendent searches.

To woo quality superintendents to their districts, school boards are discovering that they have to offer more money, better packages, and a good track record. A bigger incentive is required to urge teachers away from a 10-month position into the year-long position of a superintendent.

So districts are realizing they must pay more. A recent survey by The Blade found that nearly half of local school superintendents now make more than $100,000 annually, compared to none when a similar survey was done in 1996.

This was evident in a recent search in Perrysburg, where board members looking to replace former Superintendent Sharon Zimmers realized that they had to offer more money. To persuade Mike Cline to leave his Cincinnati-area district and come to Perrysburg, the board gave him a 6 percent raise over the $104,000 he was making with Loveland schools.

But districts acknowledge they must work within the confines of their budgets and cannot always offer top dollar. For some rural and smaller districts, this makes the candidate pool even smaller.

Expecting to pay a new superintendent more than the predecessor is the cost of competition statewide, said Sylvania school board member Mary Himmelein.

“If the public has one misconception about searches, it's that these people are just beating down your door to come work for you. In reality, we have to seek them out and make ourselves attractive to them,” said Ms. Himmelein, who is now in the midst of her third superintendent search.

“In the past, we were more `Hey, we're Sylvania - people are going to come to us,'” she said. “I think the difference is that this time we're going to go out and beat the bushes.”

Rob Delane, director of School Board Development with the Ohio School Boards Association, said his organization is undertaking 14 superintendent searches statewide. The association targets colleges and universities that train administrators as well as superintendents and assistant superintendents of other districts.

“When we do a search, we make sure we do what we can to blanket the information out there,” he said. “We try not to leave any stones unturned in getting potential candidates before the boards.”

Some leave their districts and cross the border after reaching the maximum amount in the pension. In Ohio, the State Teachers Retirement System is an annuity-based plan, which provides retirees with a percentage of their annual salary each month for each year of service in Ohio. The plan also has a retirement incentive after 30 years.

Superintendents can retire in Ohio, earn their pension, and start back up in another state earning a salary. And districts there are welcoming them.

Conflicts with the community or the board of education have created many superintendent vacancies in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. And with all the vacancies it's easier than ever for superintendents to walk away.

In Fostoria, former Superintendent Sharon Stannard retired in December after nearly a decade with the district, keeping her promise that she would step down if the voters approved an operating levy. Calling herself a lightning rod for dissatisfied parents, the superintendent kept true to her word and stepped down after the tax - which had been defeated three times before - was overwhelmingly approved in February, 2002.

In Monroe County's Bedford Public Schools, a superintendent search was required after differences between board members and Superintendent Bill Hall led to his demotion in 2000. Mr. Hall, now superintendent in Pennsylvania's Blue Mountain School District, said candidates look at these past relationships between superintendents and the community when applying for a position.

“You're basically looking for a fit,” he said. “The board is looking for a superintendent that they can trust and have confidence in and the superintendent is looking for a board that they can trust and have confidence in. Any time you have a deviation of that, you tend to have problems.”



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