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Superintendent Churn Hits Districts Across Texas - And The U.S.

Bill Zeeble
Melody Johnson used to lead the Fort Worth ISD. Now she's Scholar In Residence at TCU specializing in education policy.

KERA is examining why superintendents of large urban school districts don’t last long, and why some of the country’s biggest cities are looking for top school leaders. Districts from Chicago to Los Angeles, Minneapolis to Kansas City, are seeking superintendents. 

Just last week, Fort Worth ISD named a lone finalist to be its next superintendent after more than a year with an interim leader.
Dallas spent nearly three years with Mike Miles in charge. And during that time, a divided school board held numerous closed sessions of four or five hours -- occasionally even 10 -- to debate whether they should even keep their superintendent.
Dallas has its own interim leader now -- Michael Hinojosa -- and could hire a search firm next month to find a permanent one.

That average tenure across the country -- three and a half years -- concerns the experts.

“It is absolutely not enough time to make a difference, not nearly enough time to make a difference,” says Rod Paige, secretary of education under President George W. Bush. Earlier, he was Houston’s superintendent. Paige says improving public education is one of the nation’s most pressing problems. 

“Expecting long term gains with short term leadership -- it will not work that way,” Paige says.

Nearly everyone KERA talked to for this story agrees with Paige. But a Brookings Institution study from last fall found otherwise. The paper, School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant,said student achievement doesn’t improve with superintendent longevity; hiring a new leader isn’t tied to better outcomes, and a new superintendent barely affects differences in achievement (0.3 percent).

Hear an author of the study talk to NPR's Eric Westervelt.

What does matter, it says, is the system in place, which can either promote or hinder achievement. TCU Scholar-In-Residence Melody Johnson, who used to be  Fort Worth’s superintendent, says what’s in place now is a 19th-century system out of sync with today’s "ginormous" corporate school structures.

Johnson says in some big city districts, with board members serving 20, sometimes 30 years or more, trustees stop being objective.

“You become part of the system,” she says.                        

Johnson still wants elected boards, but says superintendents need changes that help, not hurt.

“You have essentially billion dollar-plus budgets that you’re dealing with, yet you have a one-room school house model of governance imposed on these complex systems," Johnson says. "And it just doesn’t work anymore. 

“To have nine school board members -- on any given day, you’re going to hear from at least six of them at least once," Johnson says. "You’re going to hear from them till late into the evening. You’re going to hear from them all weekend long. 11 o'clock, midnight, I’ve had board member calls. That doesn’t work anymore. You have to hold the CEO accountable, but give them freedom to do job.”

Johnson rejects reforms like Chicago’s, where the mayor has appointed the superintendent and board members for the last 20 years. A recent study from the University of Illinois-Chicago says kids do no better under that system. The appointed superintendent there resigned last month in the face a $20 million no-bid contract investigation. 

Karen Rue, the superintendent at Northwest ISD in Tarrant County, says it helps if boards get along. She’s seen divided boards hire school leaders that didn’t last even three years.

“The superintendent is not the hero,” Rue says. “They don’t come in and solve the world. And the board has to have a clear idea of what they want or where they’re going.”   

Many districts say they want their graduates to be college or career ready. Rue, who’s also the incoming president of the national Urban Superintendents Association of America, says that’s too broad, and describes part of her district’s mission.

“Our kids are engaged in work while they are in their classrooms today. That happens within the type of environment they’ll, to the best of our knowledge, work in," Rue says. "It’s within a digital environment. That it’s relevant and meaningful work to them."

Rue’s vision for the district goes on, and she says it took a while to come up with it. She says the more specific the board is before interviewing a superintendent candidate, the more successful it’ll be in keeping a superintendent.

Rue is heading into her 11th year.  Melody Johnson served six, and agrees with Rue. If the board gets along, the superintendent, the district and its students will be better off.  

When they don’t?

You can’t deny the politics in those jobs. And that is the reason there is so much churn. It’s just not easy.

Reform efforts in Texas and in other states will continue, as officials demand better academic performance. Some want a total re-examination of the national education system, but few if any in power are making those demands. 

This is part of KERA’s American Graduate initiative, charting the journey from childhood to graduation.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.