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Urban superintendents prove hard to hold on to

Friday, September 26, 2008 | 5:10 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis has found its eighth school superintendent since 2003. But how long will he last?

Missouri's largest district has been a revolving door for school leaders, reflecting the problems of big-city districts where superintendents are asked to revive poor student performance, even as they find themselves caught between factions of publicly elected school boards, teachers' unions, and parent groups — often with competing agendas.

On Friday, Kelvin Adams signed a three-year contract worth $225,000 annually plus bonus incentives, a day after his hiring was approved by a state-appointed board that oversees the district.

Adams figures he can buck the trend of superintendent turnover.

"I am absolutely focused on one thing — student achievement,'' Adams said. "I also have a temperament that I think will work well with the community and the (special administrative board).''

Academic accountability is the new national mantra in public education, and low-performing districts are placing high salaries and higher demands on their leaders.

"I consider that to be the toughest job in America,'' said Dan Domenech, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.

A recent study found that despite good salaries and plenty of perks, the average urban superintendent only stays on the job about three years, which educators say isn't enough time to enact meaningful, long-lasting reform.

"Would you buy Coca-Cola if they changed CEOs every year?'' asked Diana Bourisaw, who left as St. Louis superintendent in July after two years in the top job. "The answer is no. I wouldn't.''

Missouri's second largest city, Kansas City, has had 25 interim or permanent superintendents in 39 years, and its school board has gained a reputation for micromanaging the district and end-running its own superintendent even as test scores languish year after year.

One school board member abruptly quit this week and in a resignation letter scolded her colleagues for not doing enough to address the district's accreditation problems and their "continued demonstrations of micro-management and defensive posturing.''

"This is clearly not a board that is interested in reforming its practices to achieve strong educational outcomes for our students,'' said board member Ingrid Burnett, "and I can no longer justify my involvement to myself or to my constituents.''

Even superintendents with strong track records aren't safe. Rudy Crew, honored by his peers for improving schools in Miami-Dade County, was effectively fired by his board earlier this month when the remainder of his contract was bought out.

Critics said he mismanaged the budget and didn't build ties with communities. He was there four years.

A 2006 Council of the Great City Schools study reported an average salary of $208,000 among the nearly 60 urban districts it examined. More than half of the superintendents got a car or mileage allowance; more than one-third got financial bonuses; and 2 percent received a housing allowance.

Yet it's not unheard of for a big-city opening to draw only a few dozen candidates — a testament, experts say, to the job's professional and political demands. Thirty-five people applied for the St. Louis job.

"With all the challenges they're facing, they're looking for somebody who can walk on water,'' said Stan Paz, a former superintendent in Tucson, Ariz., and El Paso, Texas, and now vice president of McGraw-Hill Education's urban advisory resource team.

Atlanta went through five superintendents in 10 years before Barbara Hall arrived in 1999, said Katy Pattillo, a school board member in Atlanta. She thinks the district has made significant academic progress since Hall's arrival.

Pattillo said the school board attended governance training to better define the roles of those involved in education and improve communication. Atlanta also worked to get community and business support for the district of 50,000 students and its leadership. Hall now boasts of academic gains every year since 2000.

In St. Louis, Adams — who arrives from New Orleans where he was chief of staff of the Recovery School District and who is becoming a superintendent for the first time — takes over a district that hasn't been as fortunate.

Urban flight to the suburbs has plagued the city since the 1950s. The city population, more than 850,000 in 1950, is now about 350,000 — a loss of tax base that one superintendent after another has struggled to overcome.

The situation got so bad last year that the Missouri Board of Education stripped the district of accreditation, saying it came up short academically and financially. The district met only four of 14 performance standards set by the state, failing in such areas as middle and high school math scores, graduation rates and college placement.

A three-member board was appointed last year to oversee the district. But a locally-elected school board remains and its members are vocal, though largely powerless, and often second-guess the special administrative board's moves. In fact, elected board president Peter Downs criticized the hiring of Adams, saying the district would have been better off keeping Bourisaw.

Bourisaw was hired in 2006 by the elected board. When the state-appointed board took over, members decided with the new oversight, the job should be advertised. Bourisaw was encouraged to reapply but declined. John Wright has served as interim superintendent since July and did not seek the permanent job. Adams takes over in mid-October.

Bourisaw said urban districts often face issues like poverty, immigration, frequently moving or homeless students, and safety concerns that extend beyond education.

"I don't believe the quality of children's education should be determined by the ZIP code they live in,'' she said.

"School boards like to hire someone to come in and rescue the district, and one person can't do that.''

After a decade in St. Louis, Lori and Eric Peterson and their children are moving to the suburbs because they think the school district has let them down. Lori Peterson thinks the shifting leadership has contributed to the problems she has seen firsthand.

Already this school year, fourth-grader Isabella arrived home an hour late because the fill-in bus driver didn't know the route. Third-grader Zain is worried his grade might still be split into smaller groups, potentially taking him away from the classmates he began the school year with.

Peterson said she has complained but to no avail. Now, their home is for sale.

"Do we stay and try to prove a point that we're 'city' people?" she asked. "Or do we leave because that's in the best interest of our children?''


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Comments

Dave F September 26, 2008 | 8:25 p.m.

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(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 27, 2008 | 12:48 a.m.

Gee, I hope and pray St. Louis' new school superintendent does a better job with his massive youth population then Ms. Chase did with her two high school town. At $225,000 St. Louis got a bargain!

(Report Comment)

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