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The Revolving Door of Superintendents
in Urban Districts

by Tiffany Anderson
Christiansburg, Virginia

Dr. Tiffany Anderson.
Dr. Tiffany Anderson with Montgomery County students, southwest Virginia.
The Plight of Urban Superintendents

The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported “This is St. Louis at its worse,” as the words from the St. Louis City Public School board member, Robert Archibald, as he described the treatment of their superintendent who resigned in July. In studying the changes in urban districts, urban districts often begin or end with interims in place as superintendents leave mid-contract from their positions. Given the national shortage of individuals wanting to take on the position of superintendent, districts are often found turning to interims to fill the role until adequate searches may be completed. Having served as a principal for five years in St. Louis City and as a current superintendent, it is troubling to view the current state of St. Louis and other urban school districts that lack the ability to retain effective superintendents resulting in some of our most disadvantaged communities being neglected. The tax dollars of the residents are supporting decisions being made that will have a life-long impact on the lives of the youth these districts are serving. Nationally, districts that include major cities such as Washington, D.C., Miami Dade, New York, and Detroit are going through drastic changes with their newly appointed superintendents. Education Week reported on the Detroit Public Schools’ continued shortfalls towards successful outcomes as they have changed leadership.

Superintendents in urban cities around the country are moving to other places shortly after they begin. As they depart, hefty compensation packages that were part of their contracts follow them, placing a greater financial strain and burden on the district. With each new face that comes to these districts to lead comes a new organizational team, a new approach, and the district remains in a continuous cycle of turmoil with teacher morale plummeting and staff and families being confused about the direction in which they are being led. Meanwhile, much of the contentious discussions amongst the board and heated emotional statements are played out and sensationalized publicly, casting an even greater cloud of embarrassment for students, families and staff in these districts. St. Louis City spent over three million dollars focused on recruiting and hiring superintendents as they’ve hired six superintendents in three years, and each of these superintendents has been publicly criticized. In order to have genuine school improvement, stable, courageous leadership must be supported long term.

Board-Superintendent Relationships

One critical difference in urban districts that retain effective leadership, as was done in San Diego City, and in Long Beach Unified Schools, is effective superintendent-board relationships. The board-superintendent relationship is a partnership. As with any partner, each member has defined roles that he/she must follow. Successful districts with superintendents that have a long tenure have boards that understand their role. They understand that individually a board member has no decision making power, and it is only as a school board collectively that decisions may be made for the district. Superintendents in districts with a long tenure are allowed to carry out their work as superintendent without being micromanaged by others. Another common factor of successful superintendents is that the communication between the board and superintendent is consistent, clear, and a relationship of trust is built immediately and sustained. Too often in districts that are in a chaotic state, board members state they were not informed of important issues. Often good decisions are criticized because the board members do not understand the rationale behind the decision. Given board members are often not educators since they are community members and parents, effective superintendents take the time to teach as they make decisions. While the superintendent's role is to make certain decisions, the superintendent must have continued support for the decisions that are made. Board members in successful districts led by superintendents with long tenures are not found commenting in negative ways about the superintendent publicly nor is the superintendent commenting in such a way about the school board as they are a team and it is evident in how decisions are made. Micromanaging is avoided, as each board member understands his/her role in successful districts. The school board that a superintendent works for will determine a great deal in whether improvements are made in the outcomes for any district. Likewise, the superintendent’s ability to build relationships with his/her board members along with his/her ability to lead with compassion, understanding and honesty in interactions with the board and the school community will determine the effectiveness and long-term stability.

The Importance of Stable Leadership

As a former principal in St. Louis Public Schools, it’s difficult to watch the many changes in leaders contributing to the loss of community involvement in schools that former principals saw gains in at one time. It’s hard to see effective programs eliminated as a result of the cycle of continued changing leadership. The loss of resources that would have otherwise been used to service the students is equally upsetting. What’s most disturbing are the countless lives that have been destroyed. There have been hundreds of preschool students starting in these schools who have matriculated with changing curriculum, changing leadership and staff. Thousands of seniors have graduated since the cycles of superintendents have run through these urban systems. The impact on students is frightening. Effective, consistent leadership that understands deeply the importance of building relationships with the school board and full school community is perhaps the greatest indicator of a successful superintendent. With the high stakes of accreditation, accountability and sanctions that include loss of funding facing districts, drastic changes are often needed and must be made. The key is having the courage to make the changes others may have not addressed while also building effective relationships and understanding the need to sustain the improvements being put in place.

Dr. Tiffany Anderson
is superintendent of Montgomery County Schools in southwest Virginia. She is the first African-American and the first female superintendent in Montgomery County.

Published in In Motion Magazine July 23, 2006.

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