Feature

A Killing and a Crowning

by Thomas M. Westerhaus


On a late March morning in the early 1990s, less than 2½ months after he was forced to resign his tumultuous superintendency in a small Midwestern school district, Ed Evans took a shotgun into the woods and, using a spatula to push down the trigger, took his own life. His body was found by his teen-age son three days later. He had devoted nearly half of his 45 years to the same school district, where the pressures of the top job finally drove him to his death.

Six years later, Paul Reylene rode triumphantly through another community with similar characteristics in the same state atop a bright red fire engine, sirens blaring. Inside the high school, more than 300 staff and community members hailed his selection as state superintendent of the year. At 43, just three years after his arrival in the community, he was recognized as one of his state’s top superintendents.

Two superintendents, two vastly different outcomes. But an examination of the career paths of the two men reveals they had many of the same forces bearing down on them. Both found themselves in hauntingly similar communities. Each, to one degree or another, had to deal with the divisive issues, gnawing family pressures and personal loneliness that had come hand-in-hand with the top job in a school district. One man responded by falling into a downward spiral that led to his death. The other found his way through the morass to reach a pinnacle of his profession.

Disparate Outcomes

The two cases are on the extreme ends of the spectrum of the contemporary superintendency, but many of the forces that led to the “killing” of one leader and the “crowning” of the other are routinely felt by school district leaders across the country.

Few would dispute that the superintendency is an institution in need of repair. Superintendents suffer from high rates of alcoholism, divorce, depression and suicide. The frequency of turnover in the job is legendary. Leaders who aren’t fired or forced out often become so frustrated and disillusioned with the combativeness and futility of the job that they seek early retirement or an alternate career. Fewer and fewer candidates are stepping up to replace them. Yet in spite of all the pressures, some school leaders seem to thrive in the job.

A close look at the two cases—one superintendent killed by his hand, the other crowned by his colleagues—helps bring to light the forces, both internal and external, that come to bear on school leaders today and suggests some directions for fixing what ails the superintendency.

This article, drawn from a doctoral dissertation and qualitative research that I completed in 1999, is the result of more than 50 hours of in-depth interviews with family members, other educators, board members and community residents in each of the two school districts, as well as examinations of school board minutes, newspaper articles, legal papers and other documents. In order to protect the privacy of the participants yet still paint a 21st century portrait of the superintendency, the names of the superintendents and their school districts have been changed.

 

The Killing

The seeds of Ed Evans’ undoing were in the air in the Tuscany School District even as he began his work there in the early ’70s as a special education teacher straight out of graduate school.

The district was largely a conservative, German Catholic community with agrarian roots and strong family ties. Many of its residents had long harbored what appeared to be distrust of government and a reluctance to spend money on education. The district’s business manager described them as “just mad to begin with because they hated taxes.” Suggestions for additional spending often resulted in virulent protests and, on occasion, personal threats against district officials.

Beneath the general conservatism, the district was deeply divided among residents of the older and larger town of Tuscany, the outlying professional community of Ogden, and the smaller, insular farm towns of Fielding and St. Elizabeth. The factions from each community were divided and often clashed over school and other matters.

As a young teacher, Evans was shielded from much of that. A fellow teacher remembered him as a strong advocate for his special education students. He pushed for their rights to be mainstreamed into regular classrooms.

After seven years as a teacher, Evans was named principal of the junior high school, a job he loved, according to his son. He briefly took a similar job in another school district but returned to his old job in Tuscany a year later. Shortly after returning, the school board forced out a hard-line superintendent amid rumors of alcohol abuse, and Evans was hired to run the district of 1,677 students. Many in the community saw him as a breath of fresh air—an open, affable change from his predecessor. But the honeymoon wouldn’t last long.

Evans’ first discovery was that the district had no money in reserve, a situation that led him to impose austerity measures that immediately alienated many teachers. Then he found himself in the position of having to choose between three of his former colleagues to fill an administrative job. His strength always had been his rapport with his colleagues, but he increasingly found himself having to make decisions that would offend or alienate some of them. He grew distant from his old friends, who tended not to include him in the golf outings and social gatherings he had once enjoyed as their equal.

At the same time, the school board was becoming increasingly fractionated, mirroring the community that elected it. Prior to Evans’ appointment, three board members had been elected from the relatively progressive, professional area of the district. They immediately locked horns with the old guard, who saw their role as micromanagers on the lookout for excessive spending.

Board members fought bitterly among themselves, then turned to Evans to push their agendas on issues such as board expenses, building renovations and sex education. Some observers saw the superintendent begin to play politics among board members, first taking one side, then another on divisive issues.

But he proved to be a poor politician. On sex education, he started out in favor of a new curriculum, then alienated supporters by switching to total opposition after he saw the tide of community sentiment. Facing opposition to a major building proposal, he took up a campaign for year-round schooling, which would forestall the need for new classroom space. That idea was staunchly opposed by the farm community, which feared it would lose its summer help. That left Evans with new enemies but still without a solution to the space crunch.

 

Squabbles to the End

Before long the superintendent himself became the focal point of the dysfunctional board, with board members showing up unexpectedly to observe him at work and scrutinize every decision he made. Some members made end runs around the superintendent directly to building principals with their concerns about various issues, including Evans’ leadership.

Evans, once a beloved teacher and principal, was now a lonely, alienated target of the district’s discontents. His personal life began to unravel. His marriage, long a rocky one, began to fall apart, and he was rumored to have had an affair with a district employee. He contracted Lyme disease, whose symptoms include skin rashes and, sometimes, mental problems. He began taking medication for depression, and his family believed he was becoming an alcoholic.

At work, people began noticing erratic, almost manic-depressive, behavior. At one point during the run-up to a new school year, he abruptly left for California at school district expense, spending three weeks there on a self-appointed fact-finding mission about year-round schooling. One morning shortly after his return he walked into the office wearing cowboy attire—feathered hat, boots and western-style jacket—with a pin on the jacket showing a homely woman that read, “Your momma.” He declared to his staff that he was ready to straighten out the district in true “Old West” style.

He got little sympathy from the school board, which confronted him about his deteriorating behavior. He responded by filing suit against the board for offenses including slander, defamation, invasion of privacy and violation of free speech. Two days later he was suspended with pay pending an investigation of his job performance. A few months later, Evans and the board reached an agreement under which he resigned, dropped his lawsuit and received $75,000.

In March, he received a letter from the State Board of Teaching informing him that his teaching and administrative licenses were suspended pending an investigation of his activities in Tuscany. A week later he wrote letters to his family asking for forgiveness, then drove his truck into the woods and shot himself.

Although Evans’ deterioration had been quite public, his suicide shocked people in his district and beyond. His funeral was attended by large numbers of stunned and angry superintendents from the surrounding area. But it was also marred by the ongoing squabbles within the Tuscany district—this time about who would sit next to whom in the church.

The Crowning

Within several weeks in the mid-1970s, 21-year-old Paul Reylene got married, graduated from college and landed his first teaching job. He enjoyed teaching, but acknowledged that he never had a burning desire to pursue it. Even as a student, he had been drawn to administration. Four years into teaching he began night school to pursue a master’s degree in administration.

Within eight years he was an assistant high school principal in the small district of Pleasantville, and within a year of that he became the high school principal. Four years later, he was named the district’s superintendent.

In many ways he was well suited to run a small school district. He was a good organizer and a great communicator. He was deeply involved in the community as a volunteer firefighter and rescue worker. He was active in his church. But like Ed Evans, he had trouble taking a leadership role in the district in which he had taught. Some of his decisions alienated his old friends, especially during a financial crunch when he had to cut staff. The strain began to affect his health. He had difficulty sleeping and he consulted his doctor about suspected ulcers.

With the help of a supportive wife and a resilient personality, he got through those times and became comfortable in the leadership role. But he wanted greater challenges, and in the mid ’90s, he was hired to run the larger Split Rivers district with its 3,300 students about 25 miles down the road.

Like Tuscany, Split Rivers had a history of divided school boards. According to one board member, several past boards suffered from the usual rift between “a conservative side and a spendy side.” The fiscally conservative board members tended also to be micromanagers, examining every move the superintendent made.

As in Tuscany, the conservative board members usually won out, and the community was tightfisted with school spending. Before Reylene’s arrival it had been through two failed bond issues, an unsuccessful excess levy referendum and a long and painful teachers’ strike. At one point, taxpayers had to petition the board to float a bond so they could pay for a school addition.

And again as in Tuscany, there were competing communities within the district. The small community of Rica had long felt shortchanged by the larger Split Rivers community. Some in Split Rivers saw the balance swinging the other way, with Rica getting more than its fair share. But the district as a whole was changing as more professional people began to move in and replace the farm and blue-collar ethic.

It was into this changing environment that Paul Reylene began his work. In fact, the timing could not have been better. A few days before his hiring, residents elected three progressive board members. The resulting board of three rookies and four respected veterans was poised to work cohesively in support of the new superintendent. For Reylene, such luck of the draw would make all the difference. Unlike Evans, who took over in Tuscany under a bitterly divided board, Reylene arrived in Split Rivers at the beginning of a golden era of board cooperation.

“ I came in with an excellent board of education,” he acknowledged later. “I came in at a time when they were looking for the kind of leadership that I had to provide. And if they wouldn’t have been looking for it, I wouldn’t have been successful.”

Specifically, the board had been looking for a communicator—someone who could get the district’s message out to the public in a way its former superintendent, a conventional, close-to-the-vest leader, could not. And communication was precisely Reylene’s strong point.

 

A Winning Style

The contrast in style between Reylene and his predecessor was immediately apparent to teachers. From the start, the new superintendent visited the schools to introduce himself, read to children and acquainted himself with the people in the buildings.

The goodwill helped him cope with the potentially divisive issues that quickly came his way. When he arrived, the issue of the district’s Indian mascot had already come to the fore. A growing Native American population within the district argued that the mascot was demeaning. Reylene took a stance in opposition to the mascot while diffusing the issue somewhat by heavily involving students to see what other mascots might appeal to them. The board supported the process, ultimately deciding to change the mascot to the Tornadoes.

In another racial issue, an African-American parent objected to the inclusion of a classic piece of literature in the school library and curriculum because of its use of a racial epithet. Reylene framed the problem as being about racism, not the book itself. He eloquently urged the district to work on the issue of racism, but not to ban the book. The board members discussed the issue and backed their superintendent. Reylene pursued discussions of the district’s stance on race and was publicly commended for his handling of the issue, despite the fact the frustrated mother removed her children from the district.

In another potentially divisive issue, Reylene urged the board not to pay for a one-on-one aide for a disabled child in a private school, arguing that it would establish an expensive precedent. The board was divided on the issue but ultimately sided with its eloquent and persuasive superintendent.

Although relatively harmonious, Reylene’s tenure in Split Rivers was not stress-free. Like Evans, he felt the loneliness of the job. But partly because he arrived in Split Rivers as superintendent, rather than coming through the ranks and developing relationships, he was able to keep a part of himself private and thus immune from the sting of rejection. Unlike Evans, he enjoyed the spotlight but was able to shield himself from its harmful glare.

“ I can work a crowd and then walk away and really not have been intimate in any fashion with anybody,” he said. “I’ve revealed nothing about myself the whole time and I’ve stayed completely isolated from everybody in doing that.”

The constant demands of the job and his own workaholic personality did affect his family life. But his wife, while acknowledging the strains on the marriage and specifically on her desire for a career outside the home, ultimately stood by him, providing him with the stability that was lacking in Evans’ home life. That bedrock of support, combined with his innate resiliency and inner strength of character, enabled him to ride through the difficult times and continue his rise to the top of his profession.

 

Conflicting Expectations

What lessons can be learned from one superintendent’s killing and the other’s crowning? This much is clear: As much as any other factor, it was the fit of leadership—or lack thereof—between the superintendent’s abilities and the community’s expectations that contributed to the different fates of Ed Evans and Paul Reylene.

That crucial element—a community’s perceptions of what a superintendent can and should be—has been a moving target since the position’s inception 150 years ago. In the second half of the 1800s, superintendents were seen as assistants to the board—the person who tended to the instructional duties but had little input on broader policy decisions. Then at the beginning of the 20th century, superintendents began taking on financial functions and started to be seen as efficiency experts overseeing the smooth running of the organization, just as a CEO might run a business.

Later in the century, the role of human relations manager sneaked into the superintendent’s job description. As community leaders they were expected to practice empathy and sensitivity to be moral leaders while at the same time running the organization with the utmost efficiency. Soon another role, that of the politician maneuvering among the various conflicts and pressures of the district, emerged. More recently, yet another role has surfaced in educational literature, that of a visionary able to weave together the various strands of a community’s culture, find its core values and lead it accordingly.

Beyond those formal frameworks, the job carries a myriad of other often conflicting meanings to different people, including superintendents themselves. In their book, The School Superintendent: Living with Conflict, Arthur and Phyllis Blumberg identify a number of metaphoric images that superintendents have of themselves. They include theatrical producer, bus driver, tone-setter, modeler, trout fisherman, coach, obstacle remover, lightning rod, watch guard, sponge, prostitute and wheeler-dealer.

Ed Evans, far more than Paul Reylene, faced mixed and conflicting expectations from his board without even recognizing it. Some of Evans’ board members viewed the superintendency as the traditional role of efficiency expert. They specifically did not want a “politician” who would take sides or maneuver his way through board or community issues. But others in Tuscany expected the superintendent to be more of a human relations expert than an efficiency czar—a kind of priest who would be fair, honest and nurturing to board members, employees and residents alike.

The board’s expectations of management efficiency on the one hand and human relations expertise on the other—and its rejection of political maneuvering—likely set Evans up to fail. He was expected to use his power for the utmost efficiency while at the same time being the sympathetic counselor who kept everyone happy. But any use of political maneuvering to somehow tie those divergent approaches together was taboo.

This was particularly difficult for Evans, who as a homegrown superintendent was being intensely watched and judged by everyone who knew him when he was among the rank and file. Trying to please everyone, he began swinging wildly between the approaches of tough manager and good guy and ended up pleasing no one.

 

A Compatible Match

Board members in Split Rivers also were looking for a human relations expert, a great communicator. But it was made clear to Reylene that the superintendent also had to be something of a politician in order to balance competing factions of the board and the community. “I don’t think you can not be political,” the board president said at one point.

Communicator and politician. This was a more compatible pair of expectations, one that suited Paul Reylene perfectly and paved the way for his success. That perfect fit allowed him to draw upon his strong personal spirituality and ethical code to expand into the role of visionary—the realm of leaders who go beyond efficiency, human relations expertise and political survival to engage in the art of cultural sense-making for the institutions they lead. It allowed him to redefine issues, such as the classical literature racial controversy, to create a broader vision for the district and the community of Split Rivers.

Evans tried to do that in Tuscany. His outside-the-box thinking on the year-round school issue is the best example. But his lack of political acumen and recognition of its importance, along with the limited role envisioned for him by the school board, doomed those efforts.

Evans’ personal weaknesses were clearly an important part of his downfall. Ed Evans died at his own hand. There is no statement more telling about his deep, internal turmoil than that. Still, the pressures heaped on him by his divided board and community bore no small responsibility for contributing to his death. And those pressures continued long after he was gone. His successor as superintendent in Tuscany, having worked relatively successfully in the district for six years, nonetheless identified it as “a district that can make any superintendent sick.”

“I guess I’d say that 60 to 70 percent of the time my stomach is constantly being gnawed at because of the tension that I feel,” he said.

The communities within Split Rivers, on the other hand, were becoming less factionalized even before Reylene arrived. The newly elected and returning school board members who greeted him exhibited far more of a shared concern for the overall district than did previous boards. The district was becoming less parochial, more suburban and cosmopolitan. It was ready to accept a common leader to help it move forward.

Even so, and even after being named state superintendent of the year, Reylene recognized that no superintendency is safe from the pressures that can whirl up at any time, over any issue.

“I’m feeling more vulnerable today than I ever have in my life,” he said. “I think that’s coming with a sense of insight into what this job really is and its potential vulnerability.”

 

Tom Westerhaus is superintendent of the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District, 5300 Westwood Drive, Prior Lake, MN 55372. E-mail: twesterhaus@priorlake-savage.k12.mn.us. He based this article on his doctoral dissertation at the University of St. Thomas. Free-lance writer Paul Riede assisted in writing this article.