Feature

Lonely at the Top

by Michael Jazzar and Dale P. Kimball

Bob Starma, a high school counselor in a small Midwestern town, wrote a letter to the editor for his local newspaper using his school title to attack the school board as “a bunch of hyenas,” while using other animal metaphors to accuse the board for not acting in the best interests of all students.

The diatribe sent community members into an uproar, leading to statewide media attention that sensationalized the great divide between the board of education and the school counselor. Superintendent Lou Karter listened carefully.

The moment Starma claimed the administration had knowledge of his writing and use of his school title in his newspaper submission, Lou Karter winced. “I knew there would be trouble,” said Mary Karter, wife of the Pigeon County superintendent. “Anyone who knows Lou knew he would have confronted and guided Starma if he would have known.”

The school board, already feuding with Karter over other issues, ordered an investigation. A lawyer asked Karter whether the district has a written policy forbidding school staff from attacking the board. “No,” Karter replied, “but we don’t have a written policy forbidding teachers from physically assaulting board members, either. Some things are just a given.”

The board placed Karter (who as high school principal had written a manual on staff and community relations) on administrative leave. Three months later, Karter announced his retirement from the district under pressure.

Mary Karter still doesn’t understand what happened to her husband. She wonders how the school board expected him to know what each one of the district’s 400 teachers and staff members was doing. “When they find out a priest is doing something wrong, they don’t fire the pope,” she says.

Starma and the Karters are pseudonyms for real educators. The scenario described, while almost 10 years old, remains too sensitive an issue for the superintendent involved to discuss on the record.

An Isolated Role

The further one goes up the career ladder in education, the more one is exposed to open criticism. Every week brings new stories of superintendents under attack. Usually the crisis involves failed proposals or terminated contracts. The average tenure for superintendents nationwide runs less than five years. Sometimes the stories of confrontation are more tragic, as in the case of a Michigan superintendent who was shot to death by a chemistry teacher.

 

The signs of current times have left superintendents throughout the nation feeling more isolated and vulnerable than ever. The news media all too often sensationalize superintendent shortcomings beyond repair. Superintendents sometimes see themselves as scapegoats for their staff, parents and communities. They take the heat for what people don’t like about their schools, their community or even themselves.

Gary Feenstra, superintendent of the 4,700-student Zeeland, Mich., school district, remembers how alone he felt when the news media grabbed hold of a private communication to parents intended to explain an outsider’s challenge to the use of a Harry Potter book, The Sorcerer’s Stone. The media sensationalized the communiqué, twisting the explanation of a library procedure into a censorship issue. The media, says Feenstra, attempted to stoke the matter by pitting the school district and its leadership against the community with all this being portrayed on television.

Many superintendents today say they feel more pressure than even their closest assistant could imagine. Michael Jazzar, a former superintendent who now prepares future educational leaders at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has served as a mentor to hundreds of young administrators on their way to the top. “I always tell them the distance between our two chairs is more than three feet. I have had them come back and tell me how true that is,” he says.

Larry Allen, superintendent of the 4,400-student Kings Mountain, N.C., School District, says he watches young rising administrators who don’t have a clue how isolated the superintendency can be for someone who is accustomed to collaboration. “They do not see until they are a superintendent how lonely it is,” he says.

What’s contradictory about this loneliness, superintendents say, is feeling it most intensely in large crowds. Ron Archer, superintendent of the Delton Kellogg School District in southwestern Michigan, says his leadership post in a small community makes him a celebrity of sorts. People know who you are. They see your photo in the newspapers, on television and online. At times this can become a bit claustrophobic. “The lonely factor is you are always on stage and guarding what you say and do,” Archer says.

Much of the loneliness stems from a feeling that the superintendent is always performing, always under the klieg lights with an audience watching every move. Behaviors considered normal for many, such as having a few drinks with friends at a bar or restaurant or uttering a four-letter word to express anger or frustration, often are blown wildly out of proportion by those who may have a bone to pick with the top school leader.

Superintendents say they accept isolation as a natural part of their jobs. James Bermingham, former superintendent of the Three Rivers Schools and Edwardsburg Public Schools in Michigan, who was known for his success in passing ballot proposals, states, “We tend to spend many hours in the office. If you like lots of fresh air, you shouldn’t be a superintendent.” Bermingham accepted a pay increase to leave his top post in public education to work with schools in the considerably less volatile private sector.

Dave Watson, who worked as a superintendent in Michigan and Ohio before moving into higher education, refers to himself as a migrant worker, though a migrant worker with a high profile. “A superintendent really is a lone ranger riding into town to improve education for one and all,” he says. The changes promoted by a superintendent often put him or her at odds with others who may have a vested interest in the old way of doing things.

“I call it the 10 percent rule,” Watson says. “Each year a superintendent can lose up to 10 percent of his or her support through difficult decisions that are made. At the end of five years, if 50 percent are for you and 50 percent are against, it may be high time to get back on that horse.”

Small Town Blues

A superintendent accepting a position in a school district located in a small town faces a special kind of isolation.

 

A former school district leader in Indiana who now teaches at the university level says small-town superintendents are often set apart from community members by their salaries and their educational backgrounds. “I’ll never forget the one lady who stood up at the end of a school board meeting and said remorsefully, ‘Your problem … is that you’re too intelligent for this community,’” says the ex-superintendent, who asked not to be identified by name.

She points to another kind of isolation that comes from being the boss. Some people are either frightened or intimidated by someone in authority or are unwilling to try to get to know the superintendent as a human being. In fact, people who are upset with the superintendent sometimes never have spoken by phone or in person with the district leader.

Superintendents counteract this kind of isolation by using participatory management or a team approach or simply by being a people person. Lloyd Kirby, superintendent of the 860-student Colon, Mich., district, occasionally goes to the bus garage with a box of donuts in hand and sits down with the school’s bus drivers to chat. Kirby also says he makes it well known in his district that his door is always open to employees for any reason, whether they have a problem to discuss or just want to chat.

The Falling Ax

When the Pigeon County high school counselor’s demeaning words in a published letter to the editor cost Karter his job, the superintendent says his colleagues supported him by sending letters, e-mails and tokens of their appreciation. But that show of support is unusual. Karter says most superintendents are lucky if their phone rings once they get fired. Even some of those the superintendent may have considered friends avoid the superintendent as if he or she has a contagious disease.

 

Even when superintendents keep their jobs, run-ins with their boards still can be disheartening. After rough board meetings, many superintendents say they bring themselves back to reality by visiting classrooms in their school district. Board of education meetings are often followed by sleepless nights.

Richard Miller, former executive director of AASA, says he used to set time aside to work as a substitute teacher when he was superintendent of the Elkhart, Ind., schools. Miller thinks all central-office personnel should be required to work as substitute teachers at least once a year to remind themselves of the reason they entered education.

Staying Networked

Many superintendents say the best way to combat isolation is to join professional organizations. “That’s where you’ll meet people, and that’s where you’ll learn a lot,” says Craig Misner, superintendent of the Kalamazoo Intermediate School District in Michigan.

 

He says these organizations at the local, state and national levels helped him develop a strong network of friends he could turn to for advice. Misner says those friends became his springboards for new ideas. “You need someone who is perfectly honest and will tell you the way it is,” he says. Misner thinks it is a mistake to rely only on the advice of staff members who may not be as honest for fear of repercussions.

Several superintendents said seeking out colleagues in the superintendency as sounding boards, whether in person or electronically, was usually more valuable than turning to someone in their own community. But not everyone who was interviewed for this story had been successful in identifying a professional soulmate. Bemoans one: “I sometimes wish there was someone to call and someone to hash it all out with or someone who would let me fall into their arms and weep. But that is not going to happen.”

Michael Jazzar is an assistant professor of educational leadership at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28223. E-mail: mjazzar@email.uncc.edu. Dale Kimball is superintendent of the Pennfield School District in Battle Creek, Mich.