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The Superintendent Shuffle: Why Leading A School System Is A Difficult Job

Seth Sawyers
Flickr Creative Commons

The Dallas and Fort Worth school districts are searching for new superintendents. They’re not the only school systems with help-wanted ads. Chicago, Newark and Los Angeles also have openings.

For this week’s Friday Conversation, we asked the question: is it hard to keep a superintendent in a big-city school district? Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. Education secretary who runs the George W. Bush Presidential Institute in Dallas, explains.

Interview Highlights: Margaret Spellings…

…On whether anyone can be a superintendent:

“Well, we know it’s really hard. I think people who are really moving the needle and doing reform-oriented policy implementation aren’t going to be there forever because the truth of the matter is when you put children before adults, a lot of adults get mad. It’s a hard job, no two ways about it.”

…On why education reformers seem to lose their jobs:

“People who are moving the needle have a life cycle. You can only get away with a certain amount of reform and I think we understand that.

Being a superintendent is a really hard job. You have to be able to build community, you have to be a leader, you have to build consensus, you have to have a deft political touch…you have to know when to hold and when to fold and it’s a combination of educational expertise, leadership skills and politics. It is a political setting.

Education is one of those things that everyone cares deeply about and has an emotional connection to. We’ve been to school, we have kids in school, and so it’s one of the most challenging jobs in America.”

…On her criteria for Mike Miles’ replacement:

“[The Dallas school board] needs somebody who can have credibility in the community, inside and out of the community. I do think it’s important they find someone with an educational background. I think that’s been a ding on Miles, not necessarily deservedly so because it’s a management job, but I think it kept him on his back foot for a long time. And I think we want somebody who has experience of delivering results for students. The proof is in the pudding.” 

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.
Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.