For supers, a brief stay in hot seat; Short tenures the norm with stress, challenges of today’s urban schools

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

W.T. White can rest easy.

Dr. White led the Dallas school district from 1945 to 1968 and holds the city’s record for longest-serving superintendent – 23 years.

Mike Moses was burned out a few months past three. And no one expects the next superintendent’s tenure to last much longer.

The job of urban superintendent has never been easy. But in the last decade, it’s become an around-the-clock stress test – the sort of job that chews through dynamic leaders and, more often than not, leaves them exhausted and beaten.

“It’s just a constant bombardment,” Dr. Moses said after announcing his resignation Wednesday. “And you can do that for a while, and you can enjoy the challenge of that for a while. But I think you just use up a lot of your energies.”

Dallas had six superintendents from 1914 to 1987 – 73 years. It’s had six in the years since.

“It’s obviously a very complex assignment,” said Nolan Estes, Dallas’ superintendent from 1968 to 1978 and now a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. “There’s no job more stressful than being superintendent of schools.”

While DISD’s leadership chaos in the late 1990s was unusual, it was by no means unique. Depending on how you measure it, the average urban superintendent lasts between two and four years.

The board game

The biggest problem tends to be a superintendent’s relationship with the school board. Boards are political animals, representing divided constituencies, and managing board relations is near the top of any superintendent’s agenda. New board members often want to put a new face on the district and have little patience to wait years for improvements.

“It’s not easy to have nine bosses,” said Dan Katzir, managing director of the Broad Foundation, which runs the Urban Superintendents Academy, a training program in California. “The care and feeding of the board is a big issue.”

Even those who get along well with their boards face the pressure of being in the media and public spotlights at all hours, every day.

“You give and give and give,” Dr. Moses said. “You show up at everything you show up for. You answer phone calls into the night. You talk to your friends at Sunday school about school problems. You know, you just … everything you do is almost related to school.”

Carl Cohn, superintendent of Long Beach, Calif., schools in the 1990s, took a monthlong sabbatical after six years in the job.

“I literally forgot about the district for an entire month,” he said. “That had a lot to do with coming back refreshed and renewed. Boards and superintendents that are having a good run need to think about those kinds of things.”

In contrast, Dr. Moses complained that his recent attempt at a vacation had proved futile, as he found he couldn’t escape the stress.

Another change: the development of an education industry that can be a powerful financial lure for superintendents. There are now hundreds of testing companies, consulting firms and other corporations in the business of education. They can make financial offers to superintendents that surpass even the outsized salaries school districts must now offer to be competitive.

Superintendents aren’t the only leaders with shortening tenures. A variety of studies have found that CEOs are spending shorter stints in the corner office. College presidents, nonprofit directors and politicians are changing jobs more often.

“This is a phenomenon beyond K-12 education,” Mr. Katzir said.

Churning through superintendents presents a real problem for urban schools, since each new superintendent often wants his own curriculum, his own top staff and his own way of doing things.

“When you’re dealing with a large system, it takes at least three years to get the changes started and begin to have them implemented deeply,” said Judy Farmer, a school board member in Minneapolis and co-chair of a national task force on leadership in urban schools. “If you leave, it’s up for grabs again.

“The people who stay in the system, the teachers and the staff, get to think, ‘I don’t really need to buy into these changes. That person’s going to leave soon anyway.’ They keep their heads down and keep doing what they’re doing.”

Mr. Katzir’s group awards the Broad Prize in Urban Education, which annually honors the top five urban school systems in the country. In the last three years, only one of the districts to be a Broad Prize finalist had a superintendent who had been with the district fewer than five years, he said.

When Dr. Cohn retired from Long Beach in 2002, he was the nation’s longest-serving head of an urban school district – 10 years.

“That stability and continuity at the top is so critical,” said Chris Steinhauser, the longtime deputy superintendent in Long Beach who succeeded Dr. Cohn. Long Beach won last year’s Broad Prize.

That sort of veteran leadership is increasingly rare. A study by the Council of Great City Schools found that only 15 percent of urban superintendents have been in the same job for more than five years.

Splitting up the job

Districts are trying a variety of methods to keep leaders longer. Some, such as Dallas, create incentive bonuses that reward superintendents who stay beyond a certain date.

Others are choosing to divide the job into two: education and everything else. Districts such as Seattle and San Diego have hired noneducators to handle the myriad issues a major school system must tackle, from real estate and zoning to lobbying and fund raising. That leaves the academic work to an educator with a strong background in curriculum and instruction.

But others say that in some cases, a long stay may not be the most productive option. In the corporate world, struggling companies often hire a “turnaround CEO” to make rapid structural changes and stabilize a venture at risk of spinning out of control. After a short period – sometimes months, sometimes a couple of years – the CEO departs and makes way for a new management team that can plan for the longer term.

Several education observers used the turnaround CEO analogy to describe Dr. Moses.

“It could be that Mike’s tenure there could be this yeomanlike tenure of cleaning up after Rojas and those other folks,” Dr. Cohn said, referring to former DISD Superintendent Bill Rojas. “That in itself is incredibly important work. The Dallas board and Dallas superintendency had really developed a reputation as very dysfunctional in terms of national observers.

“I don’t mean to diminish what he’s done there. That’s incredibly important. But is that district at a point where it really wants to get into the big leagues of urban districts? That comes about only from laserlike focus on student achievement.”