Superintendent search: Trouble for districts as school chiefs exit
With last month’s resignation of Superintendent William Collins, the school district is facing the seventh leadership change in four years.
In just the last two years, the schools have been led by two permanent and two acting superintendents and Interim Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote, a retired superintendent who has stepped into the role on a part-time basis for the second time in as many years.
Karen Baldwin, resigned last year after less than three years as superintendent amid accusations of plagiarism.
The turnover underlines just how brief the tenure for school superintendents can be, raising eyebrows among organizations that advocate for superintendents.
Brief tenures can spell trouble for districts, which spend resources finding superintendents. It can lead to fewer candidates who want to work there — especially if the outgoing superintendent faced a hostile public or school board.
“Every person that goes into the district as a superintendent wants to have tenure there,” said Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. “Some communities, where there’s a lot of drama. ... They will not have a healthy pool of candidates.”
According to Rabinowitz, of 127 superintendents who responded to a recent survey, half said they have worked in their current district less than four years. On average, Connecticut superintendents have led school districts for 7.6 years, she said.
At a recent meeting of directors of superintendent associations from across the United States, several directors discussed tenure for school district leaders nationally, noting an increase in the number of superintendent terminations and votes of no confidence.
Rabinowitz said her counterparts in Ohio, Wisconsin, and New York said they have seen shorter tenures for top school administrators in their states.
The number of people interested in being a superintendent has shrunk in recent years, in part because the job is so hard, said Bob Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.
“The job of the superintendent has become more complex,” he said. “The political pressures have become more intense, the expectations have become higher, the number of hours spent in an average week during the school year is very high.”
Problems like school security, vaping and students battling mental health issues have grown, while administrators continue to worry about student achievement and test scores on tight budgets, said New Fairfield Superintendent Pat Cosentino.
“It’s not an easy job,” said Cosentino, who came to the town from Region 12. “All the problems of society land right in our schools.”
Cosentino advises educators seeking a superintendent's license. She tells younger candidates to become superintendents later in their careers.
“It’s hard to do it for 20 to 25 years,” she said. “Ten years, I think, is a good plan. It’s 24/7. The job just doesn't end.”
Superintendents are always on call. Rabinowitz, who was interim superintendent in Bridgeport, recalled leaving Christmas with her family after high winds damaged the shingles that had fallen off the roof of one of the buildings. She said superintendents easily work 80 hours a week.
Sometimes superintendents change jobs because they want to bring fresh initiatives to a new community, Cosentino said. Other times, school chiefs leave because they lose the support of families or the school board, especially if the board members who hired them leave.
“Boards of Ed can sometimes be very difficult to work with,” Rabinowitz said. “You’re spending a great deal of time in feeding and nurturing the Board of Education.”
When Rabinowitz left her interim superintendent job n Bridgeport in October 2016, she blamed a school board member for her departure.
Social media has made it tougher for superintendents to move past criticism.
“One small mistake, you can ruin your whole career,” Cosentino said.
Several districts in Fairfield County are searching for new superintendents.
Besides Ridgefield, Norwalk, Bridgeport, Westport and in Hartford County, Granby, are all searching for a new top administrator.
New Haven has explored how to get out of the contract with current Superintendent Carol Birks, who has faced criticism for a proposal to cut teachers, among other concerns. The city has had two superintendents since 2013, when the longtime school chief Reginald Mayo retired. The superintendent search has been highly contentious, once leading one board member to challenge another to a duel.
The state Board of Education does not work directly with districts looking for superintendents. “That is a local issue that we don’t get involved with,” spokesman Peter Yazbak said.
Superintendents sometimes move to a nearby district, but the New Milford school board decided to expand its search out of state when its school chief moved to Region 15, said David Lawson, board chairman.
“You have a limited pool right here in Connecticut,” he said. “What we were looking for is someone who was dedicated to New Milford. We didn’t put parameters as far as where you were coming from.”
This revolving door is fairly common in Connecticut because towns want a candidate who understands how school boards and funding work in the state, Rader said.
“Knowledge of Connecticut, knowledge of the people here, good credible relationships, that really helps a superintendent,” he said.
With the help of a consulting firm, New Milford hired Kerry Parker, a former administrator in New Mexico, Colorado and Connecticut. “We found a very excellent candidate by doing that,” Lawson said.
Consultants are a common and useful resource for school boards, who often do not have the time to search for candidates, Rader said.
“You save much time and effort,” he said. “Consultants are generally very knowledgeable about what's needed in a superintendent and have a responsibility to make sure there is a good match between the superintendent and the town or city.”
A professional search for a superintendent typically costs between $15,000 to $30,000 or more for larger districts, said Glenn “Max” McGee, president of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the firm conducting the search for Norwalk’s superintendent.
The superintendent often commands the highest salary among public employees in the town.
When Greenwich Public Schools poached Superintendent Toni Jones from Fairfield, her new contract contained the promise of a $50,000 bonus if she is still employed there in five years. Jones was offered a salary of $236,640, plus benefits, for three years.
Sasha Houlihan, communications director for Greenwich public schools, said the bonus would be paid after five years, and was “approached with a business mindset to retain talent.”
Jones is the 14th person to lead Greenwich public schools in the past 20 years, and the fourth permanent superintendent hired in the past decade. Before she was hired, three permanent superintendents rotated through the district in the past 10 years — the latest leaving after less than one year for a job in Utah.
Three other interim superintendents led the district between the three permanent school chiefs in the last decade.
When Jones was hired, Greenwich school board member Kathleen Stowe said retention bonuses are common practice in the corporate world.
Before his resignation in Ridgefield due to health issues, Collins was making $233,303, along with a $14,660 annuity.
But salary is not the main draw.
“None of us have gone into the education field to make a great deal of money. I have not seen superintendents move from one district to another for a higher salary,” Rabinowitz said. “If there are openings and I get calls about a district by superintendents, they never ask me about the salary, they ask me about the working conditions and the climate.”
Staff writer Jo Kroeker contributed to this report.