Constant turnover among school superintendents roils state districts
Photographs by Michael Manning
STATE EDUCATION OFFICIALS placed the Southbridge schools into receivership earlier this year, citing continual underperformance in all testing areas, high suspensions and disciplinary problems, and unacceptable graduation rates.
A key reason why state officials decided enough was enough was the void at the top of the school system. Since 2011, Southbridge has had seven superintendents. While officials lay part of the blame for high turnover on the School Committee, the message is clear: Without stability in the buck-stopping office, the rest of the system is rudderless and unable to deliver on the key mission of educating children.
“Leadership in the Southbridge Public Schools is currently in a state of disarray,” says a report earlier this year from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recommending receivership. “Since 2010, the district has been unable to sustain consistent leadership at any level. Seven individuals have held the position of superintendent, and five individuals have held the position of assistant superintendent….Stakeholders within the school community agreed that the constant change in leadership has been detrimental to district improvement.”
The market for school superintendents is out of whack. Superintendents are often the highest-paid official in a municipality, yet the top salaries are not attracting more people to the profession. Officials say the job is so demanding that fewer and fewer educators are aspiring to be superintendents. Demand for someone who can do the job is much greater than the supply.
“There aren’t enough candidates,” says Fitchburg Superintendent Andre Ravenelle, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “Not a lot of people are going into this work.”
The result is a game of musical chairs. One superintendent leaves his post for a position in another community, which creates a vacancy that is often filled by someone from another municipality, which creates another vacancy, and so on. The game destabilizes the state’s educational system and is tilted in favor of wealthier communities, which are often able to attract and retain superintendents because they can afford to pay higher salaries.
Scott Lazo, the chairman of the Southbridge School Committee and a lifelong resident of the hardscrabble town, has watched the game play out in his community with devastating results. “You build a revolving door, it’s the kiss of death when it comes to schools,” he says. “The only time our district was successful was when we had longtime sitting superintendents.”
TURNOVER MORE FREQUENT
The Malden School Committee went looking for a new superintendent after David DeRuosi, who held the post for the last five years, left early in May to become superintendent of schools in next-door Saugus.
The vacancy is something the Malden School Committee is grudgingly getting used to. Leonard Iovino, the vice chairman of the committee, said he served with two superintendents over the course of three decades when he worked as a teacher in the Malden school system. Since he retired and won a seat on the school committee in 2005, the district has gone through four superintendents, including DeRuosi.
In interviewing candidates for the superintendent’s job, Iovino says, he looks for people who are likely to stay for the long run. “I’ll look to see how many times they changed their positions,” he says. “I’m a dinosaur. I look for people that sink roots and stay in one place.”
But finding that type of superintendent is getting more and more difficult. Nearly a third of the 240 public schools superintendents in the state have been replaced in the past two years, and that doesn’t include about 10 that are serving in interim or part-time positions, according to data from a variety of sources. Of the 76 new hires, 52 came following an outside search and 24 were promoted from within without a search for external candidates.
The average tenure of school superintendents across the state is 3.2 years—5.2 years if the superintendents hired over the past two years are not included.
As Malden’s search process came to an end, two candidates emerged as finalists. The favored choice was 33-year-old Charles Grandson IV, the associate director of leadership development at the Harvard Kennedy School. Grandson’s educational experience includes one year as deputy superintendent in Poughkeepsie, New York, and stints as a principal in the Springfield schools and a teacher in the Boston public schools.
The Malden School Committee offered Grandson the position of interim superintendent on June 20. He said he needed time to think it over, but he really needed time to see if he could land the superintendent’s job in Fall River, where he was also a finalist. The Fall River job went to someone else on June 22 so Grandson accepted the Malden post, but not without grumbling from members of the school committee who felt he wasn’t fully committed to the job and feared he was just using Malden as a pit stop on the way up the career ladder.
The Malden School Committee is likely to begin the search for a permanent superintendent later this year.
It’s rare for someone to be a finalist for two superintendent positions at the same time, but the fact that Grandson was in the running in both Malden and Fall River reflects a shortage of qualified candidates for the positions. Education officials say the bruising nature of the superintendent’s job is discouraging potential candidates from applying for the post, which means those with experience are in high demand.
Superintendents overall appear to be getting older. The average age of school chiefs in the state is just over 55, according to a survey last year to which 192 superintendents responded. The median age was 57 and more than 36 percent of those surveyed were over 60. Despite the older age of most superintendents, experience is in short supply. The average total experience of superintendents as superintendents is 7.3 years.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which represents all but two municipal committees in the state and conducts superintendent searches for many, says selecting a superintendent today is much harder than it once was because the selection is limited.
“The pools are much smaller than they were a generation ago and significantly smaller than they were two generations ago,” Koocher says. “They can always find three or four top-drawer people to apply, but not dozens like they used to. The job is far more difficult.”
The superintendent’s job is one of the highest-paid positions in most cities and towns in the state. The average salary is just above $160,000, with at least 20 superintendents making in excess of $200,000. Still, officials say current salary levels are failing to draw large numbers of recruits into the profession.
“Most of my friends who are in the private sector would never work for what I get paid,” says Fitchburg’s Ravenelle, who earned $165,984 last year, just a little above the statewide average. “People who choose this work don’t choose it because of compensation. These are high-stakes jobs. If you do a lousy job, that child has lost fourth grade. She’s not getting it back.”
Records indicate there is a pecking order with communities and superintendent salaries. Wealthier communities tend to pay higher salaries and as a result tend to employ superintendents with more experience who are likely to remain in their jobs longer.
While some urban districts pay salaries near or above $200,000, the top 20 include many of the state’s wealthiest communities, such as Newton, Brookline, Concord-Carlisle, Wellesley, Weston, and Needham. Not coincidentally, these districts consistently spend 50 percent or more above the net school spending level, the minimum mandated by the state through a formula of state and local money.
At the other end, many of the state’s smaller, blue-collar communities, such as North Adams, Gardner, Hopedale, and Winthrop —three of which recently had to replace superintendents—pay well below the average salary and spend little, if at all, above the net school spending formula.
Communities with fewer resources are at a disadvantage. “You’re going to get what you pay for,” says Iovino, the Malden official. “We can’t compete with a Dover-Sherborn. We can’t compete with Newton. You want to keep [a superintendent], but you can’t give them the stars, the sun, and the moon, though they might request that.”
The nature of the market means superintendents are often looking for the next opportunity, which creates awkward situations as the superintendent in one community goes looking for a job in another. Since all finalist interviews are done in public, school committees know when their superintendent is looking for a new job. Koocher likens the situation to someone getting caught cheating on a spouse.
Acushnet Superintendent Stephen Donovan has become somewhat of an expert in finalist interviews. In the past two years, Donovan has been a finalist for three positions in western and central Massachusetts—North Adams, Palmer, and the Narragansett Regional School District, which consists of the small towns of Templeton and Phillipston.
Donovan, who is paid $111,000 as overseer of his K-8 district, holds one of the lowest paid full-time positions in the state. He says he began looking at other jobs after being in Acushnet 10 years as superintendent and 18 years overall. He has two years remaining on his contract and says he is just exploring other options.
“It is what it is,” says Donovan, voicing both his and most districts’ view of hiring superintendents. “That’s what the landscape is that’s out there. We both go through the process to see if it’s a fit.”
Christopher Green, chairman of the Acushnet School Committee and a former teacher in the system who now teaches in the Freetown-Lakeville regional district, says the board understands Donovan’s desire to move and doesn’t hold it against him.
“I think pay is a huge factor,” says Green. “Acushnet is the lowest-paid district on the South Coast. I don’t think he wants to go elsewhere, but if he does, I’ll miss him. I fully support his right to look. He’s open and honest [about his intentions] as much as he needs to be. He’d be a fool not to look elsewhere.”
RIPPLES IN THE POOL
The game of musical chairs for school superintendents in Massachusetts shows no sign of slowing down. It’s a game where districts throw more and more money at the relatively few candidates available; meanwhile, the disrupting effect of departures spreads across the state. There is no movement in education circles to change the game. Indeed, the rules of the game practically promote defections, since nearly all superintendent contracts come with clauses allowing them to leave for other jobs after giving notice.
Mary Czajkowski set one game in motion in July 2015 when she jumped from the superintendent’s post in Barnstable, where she had been working for four years, to the same position in Lexington. At $255,000 a year, the Lexington job is one of the highest-paid superintendent positions in the state. Only Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang, at $257,000, is paid more.
Meg Mayo-Brown, the superintendent in Fall River, applied to replace Czajkowski in Barnstable. According to local observers, Mayo-Brown thought her days were numbered when 23-year-old Jasiel Correia was elected mayor last fall. Her contract was expiring at the end of the school year, and she was getting mixed signals from the incoming administration about whether there would be an extension. For Mayo-Brown, the timing was perfect for her to apply and be selected as the new superintendent in the Cape’s biggest town.
Mayo-Brown left the $180,000-a-year post in Fall River and signed a four-year contract with Barnstable with a starting salary of $200,000, the top end for what the town advertised the position for. For some Barnstable school committee members, Mayo-Brown’s status as a sitting superintendent was the clincher.
“It was for me,” says Margeaux Webster, the chair of the Barnstable School Committee. “We have an experienced staff, experienced district leadership, and it challenges somebody with proven leadership.”
Webster wasn’t concerned that Barnstable was luring its superintendent away from Fall River. “I guess that’s always the case,” she says. “You need to look at what’s best for your district.”
Fall River quickly moved to find a replacement for Mayo-Brown, offering a salary of $175,000 to $200,000 a year, which was above what Mayo-Brown had been making in a district strapped for cash. One school committee member, Joseph Martins, said he would be more comfortable offering a $125,000 annual salary, but he was outvoted because that level of pay would not have drawn the kind of candidates Fall River was searching for.
Three candidates made it into the Fall River finals, all with very different leadership styles. Grandson, who had never been a superintendent before, was one of the finalists, along with Stacy Scott, the Framingham superintendent, and Matthew Malone, who had previously served as superintendent in Brockton and Swampscott and worked as the state secretary of education under former governor Deval Patrick.
Scott has a fractious relationship with Framingham’s town officials and has been the target of a no-confidence vote by the teachers union there. He has been blanketing communities in and out of Massachusetts with his resume to find another job. A published author and licensed clinical psychologist, Scott had been a finalist for the superintendent’s post in Cambridge, where he lost out to Kenneth Salime, who was spirited away from Weymouth schools where he was superintendent.
Malone, a finalist for the superintendent’s post in Saugus, was the Fall River School Committee’s ultimate choice for the job. He will bring a decidedly different style to the Fall River schools, which have undergone a turnaround under the cerebral Mayo-Brown, whose approach to education is similar to Scott’s. By contrast, Malone, a former Marine, likens public education to “being on a battlefield.” He refers to principals as “battalion commanders” and calls teachers “warriors.”
Malone championed his ability to garner grants and deal with state officials for needed funds, a big selling point with the board. But his most impassioned pitch came in talking about his desire to return to dealing with children, noting his favorite professional experience was at another cash-strapped system.“Brockton, that was the best job I ever had,” he said. “I need this job to feel value as a man. This, to me, is what I was born to do.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the schools where former education secretary Matthew Malone served as superintendent.