Guest Column

When Superintendents Become the Generals

by Philip E. Geiger

School boards around the country have been hiring a new breed of superintendent—military generals, a federal prosecutor, a health care executive, an investment banker and former corporate executives.

 

The reason, they say, is that their skills are transferable between the private and public sectors and between the military and schools. They claim these individuals bring a new perspective to school management. They usually hire a No. 2 person who has an educational background who can compensate for what the CEO lacks in pedagogical knowledge and institutional understanding.

This premise sounds plausible. After all, how difficult could it be to manage a school district? Leadership is leadership.

Having listened to that logic for several years and now being convinced there must be something to it, I am contemplating joining the Army or the Air Force as a general or landing a job as a federal prosecutor in a big city. Now, admittedly, I do not have any military training nor do I hold a law degree, but I have seen many war movies and have watched “Law and Order” on TV since its inception.

Furthermore, I am prepared to hire an assistant who understands the military or the law, depending upon which career I pursue. I hold an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Finance and a doctorate from Columbia University and have more than 30 years of administrative experience, including 13 years as a school superintendent. With these transferable skills, I feel perfectly suited to my new career in the military or law.

The reality is I am not so presumptuous to even think I could run one of those organizations, yet many retired personnel are looking at school administration as a viable second career—as if there is nothing to know or learn to run a multimillion dollar school operation. Perhaps these retired general and corporate types believe that educators are so poorly trained and incapable that anyone could do better leading a school district.

Former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, who is now superintendent in Los Angeles, has stated publicly that the superintendency is the toughest job he has had to date. Bravo for that admission.

Part of the problem in many school districts is that teachers’ unions have assumed an inordinate level of authority, yet not every part of their agenda coincides with the goals and objectives of the public. In fact, by their own charter, unions exist to enhance the terms and conditions of employment for their own members.

School governance also can be a problem since school boards not only provide local oversight but also insert factional values, particular interests into school district decisions. It is a rare school board that recalls its job is to make sure schools are well run rather than trying to run the schools.

A new superintendent is surely going to have to be equally capable in financial issues as with educational matters, but that can best be achieved through joint graduate programs in both education and business. Combined M.B.A./Ph.D. programs already exist at Stanford, Columbia, University of Southern California and other fine schools. Unfortunately many of the new breed superintendents have expertise in areas other than education. That results in the primary decision maker of a school system having no knowledge of the field that he or she is trying to manage. When challenged by staff that proposed changes won’t work, it is only the experienced and knowledgeable educator who can advocate for these improvements. That person should be the district’s CEO, the superintendent.

Indifferent Attitude

If my fantasy of becoming a general or federal prosecutor came to pass, my new but infinitely more experienced colleagues would be appalled that a school superintendent became an instant military leader or high-profile attorney. Because school personnel seem to accept this latest trend without a whimper, school boards pass over qualified educators and appoint people who are ready to start at the top.

Because most noneducator superintendents are retired and collecting pensions already, they have little to lose. That perhaps is the key to their success, they appear confident and assured. But indifference to satisfying legitimate interests is a poor prescription for accountability in a democratic institution.

This is, of course, the way leaders of the public’s educational business need to function. Any superintendent doing a good job must remember that friends come and go but enemies accumulate. There will be more hard decisions than easy ones and if you believe there is a sense of urgency about your work, you will make some people unhappy. But if you do your job well, you will have provided excellent leadership for a local school district, regardless of length of tenure.

Just as in business, educational CEOs come and go, but let’s at least be sure that the district’s CEO has earned the substantive right to be an educational leader.

Philip Geiger, a former superintendent in New Jersey and Massachusetts, is executive director of the Arizona School Facilities Board, 1700 W. Washington St., Suite 602, Phoenix, Ariz. 85007. E-mail: pgeiger@sfb.state.az.us