Feature

Two Superintendents, One Home

Spouses confront agonizing logistics while establishing ground rules for dinner talk when both work as district superintendents by PRISCILLA PARDINI

When Mary Ward was superintendent of the Ingram Independent School District in central Texas, she would occasionally encounter angry parents who were anxious to transfer their children out of neighboring Harper Independent School District into her school system.

Ward usually gave the parents a few minutes to air their grievances, which sometimes centered on the alleged foibles of the Harper superintendent, before gesturing to the picture of her husband sitting on her office desk and courteously telling her visitors she was sure "Mr. Ward" had his reasons for whatever action he had taken.

"Some people never did put us together," laughs Mary, who is, indeed, married to James D. Ward, the superintendent in Harper.

The Wards are one of a small, but intriguing phenomenon--superintendents who are married to superintendents. Nationally, The School Administrator has identified 27 such couples. (Dozens of other situations exist where one spouse formerly served as a superintendent.)

In some cases, the two met and married relatively early in their professional careers, when each was teaching or serving as a principal. They then moved up through the administrative ranks together, raising children along the way.

In other situations, they met later in life, often in graduate school pursuing doctorates, and now are in second marriages with blended families made up of grown children.

To be sure, these couples have much in common--stress and long hours on the job, for example--with other high-powered, professional couples working in two different fields. Yet superintendent couples often find themselves confronting rather unique challenges. Assuming they want to live together, each needs to land one of the relatively small number of superintendencies available in any given area. Subsequently, they may find themselves competing against each other for everything from winning the conference football championship or county spelling bee to hiring the most qualified teachers available locally. And, of course, everyone wants to know, "What do you talk about at night?"

Still, all those who were interviewed say the benefits of being married to another superintendent far outweigh the negatives.

Molly Helms, who never imagined being a superintendent, let alone also being married to one, thought it would be more difficult than it has turned out to be. "But my experience has been wonderful," says Helms, who runs the 996-student Pollock Pines School District in northern California, 12 miles from Placerville Union School District, where her husband, V. Donald Helms, is superintendent. "I’d endorse it heartily."

Too Much Togetherness?
So what’s the reaction when people find out that Veronica Stalker, superintendent of the Waukee, Iowa, Community School District, is the wife of Chuck Stalker, superintendent of the Wellsburg-Steamboat Rock Community School District 90 miles away in Wellsburg, Iowa? "They’re fascinated," she says. "They love to ask us about it."

But Tom McDonald, superintendent of Columbia School District 206 in Hunters, Wash., and Evergreen School District in Gifford, Wash., says people often are incredulous when he tells them that his wife, Pat, is superintendent of the neighboring Inchelium, Wash., School District. Search consultants, in particular, were dubious about them finding two superintendencies in close proximity.

Is it possible for two such high-level public officials to experience too much togetherness? It is, say experts such as Catherine Chambliss, chair of the psychology department at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., who has studied spousal relationships when both husband and wife work in the same field.

She says spouses who share the same career run the risk of having their personal lives eclipsed by professional issues. "You have to learn how to manage the times when you are fed up with the shop talk, the second guessing, the advice," says Chambliss, a psychologist married to a psychologist.

Jerry Gross, superintendent in the Conejo Valley Unified School District, and part of a husband-wife superintendent team in southern California, agrees that dual superintendent couples could easily fall into the trap of totally immersing themselves in school business. "The first 20 minutes or so after we get home, Gwen and I debrief," he says, referring to his wife, Gwen Gross, superintendent in the Ojai Unified School District. "Then we declare a timeout. Otherwise, it would be too much."

The Helmses, superintendents based in northern California, often have lengthy discussions about issues and problems associated with their jobs. "But there are times when one or both of us has had a bad day and we say, ‘Let’s not talk about it,’" says Molly Helms. "And on weekends we rarely discuss anything to do with school."

Even the Wards, who according to Mary, "talk shop all the time," reached the point not long ago where enough was enough. On a trip last summer to Canada, she says, "We established a ground rule that we wouldn’t talk about school. And we didn’t--for 10 days."

Dot Weber, who like her husband, Fred Schroeder, heads up a suburban Chicago school district, says it is not unusual to bring work home. "There’s always more to do, so this job can become all-consuming," says Weber, superintendent of Glenview, Ill., Community School District 34. "And with two of you doing it, the demands multiply exponentially." Furthermore, with their four children grown and living on their own, she adds, "The temptation is there to take on yet another evening meeting."

Schroeder, who works in Park Ridge School District 64 in the same county, agrees. "Our jobs are fun, but also tremendously stressful. And it’s bad enough when there’s just one of you. You can’t be in each other’s business continually. Some things you should share … some you should walk away from."

Built-In Support
The biggest benefit of being married to another superintendent, many say, is the opportunity to talk about situations and share concerns with someone who totally understands what his or her partner is experiencing. On that point, Chambliss, the psychologist, says: "Having part of your professional network under the same roof can facilitate problem-solving and be mutually beneficial."

The couples she has worked with who share the same professional issues "find it creates a real synergy and facilitates the growth of both (spouses’) careers because they learn from each other," Chambliss says.

Adds Veronica Stalker, who’s been a superintendent since 1994: "You can process, talk, celebrate, complain--all with someone who understands the issues you’re dealing with and the ramifications of your decisions. You can think out loud and test out your ideas on each other."

Weber values such opportunities. "I think when two people love what they do and care for each other, it promotes the most rewarding type of conversations," she says. "When we explore ideas in a shared context, it brings a richness to the discussion that benefits us professionally and brings us together personally."

Even after 16 years as Illinois superintendents, Arnie and Pamela Witt say they still use each other as sounding boards. "My district (Hillside School District 93) could be in the middle of collective bargaining and I can ask Pam, ‘Hey, how are you handling this?’" Arnie says. Still, Pamela Witt, who heads up Frankfort School District 157-C, recalls the after-work conversations were much more intense in the early days of their superintendencies. "When we first started, it was a matter of who could tell who something first," she says.

Competitive Spirits
But is more serious competition a problem for superintendent couples? "That’s something I worried about," admits Weber, who has nine years’ experience as a superintendent, four more than her husband. However, like many of the other superintendents interviewed, Weber describes her relationship with Schroeder--with whom she has been married for 14 years--as far more collaborative than competitive.

Still, she remembers a number of years when they attended superintendent functions together--functions where he filled the role of the superintendent’s spouse. "That could have been a problem, but he’s always encouraged me to develop any talent I might have," Weber says. In fact, unbeknownst to Weber, her husband helped orchestrate her nomination as a candidate for Illinois Superintendent of the Year, an honor she won two years ago.

Sometimes the competition is district-based. Jim Ward tells the story about the day he learned that Harper School was being recognized by the Texas officials as one of 18 exemplary "mentor" schools in the state. It wasn’t until the Wards were out to dinner that night that he broke the news to Mary. "I told her we were one of the 18," he says, admitting that he was "kind of bragging." Mary didn’t miss a beat. "She very calmly said, ‘We were one of the other 17,’" recalls Jim.

The endings aren’t always so happy, as Gwen and Jerry Gross found out the day both their districts asked voters to approve bond issues. The unexpected results included a victory for Gwen and her school board and a defeat for Jerry and his board. Although they weren’t technically in competition with each other, Gwen recalls the outcome in her district as bittersweet. "I wanted to tiptoe into the house and say, ‘I’m sorry.’"

The McDonalds often find themselves locked in head-to-head competition. Their districts, in the same athletic conference, are arch-rivals. "When we played football, we decided to walk out on the field and shake hands after the game, just like the players," says Pat McDonald. "There was quite a bit of laughter over that."

Dispensing Advice
Competition aside, giving and getting advice, even from the one you love, can be tricky. Jerry Gross says he found it helpful when confronted by a big decision to bounce ideas off of Gwen. "You and your wife are peers, you share a common bond, and she’s there." Gwen agrees. "I’ll say to him, "This is what I’m thinking. Give me some feedback."

In some cases, the superintendent spouses tend to seek out advice from each other in specific areas. Jim Ward most often asks Mary about instructional issues. Mary calls him on school construction matters. "Not that we always follow each other’s advice," says Mary. "But we value each other’s opinion."

Chuck Stalker points out that while he and Veronica frequently talk over problems, "We’re both independent in our decision-making and have to take into account what will work in each of our districts."

Many of the couples spoke of different leadership styles. Sharon Hill, superintendent in Valmeyer Community Unit School District in western Illinois, says she is more collaborative than her husband, John, whom she described as pro-active. That means her counsel on how to handle a problem might not work for her spouse, the superintendent in East Richland on the opposite side of the state. She says she and John learned early in their marriage how much advice to give each other. Too much, "can be irritating," she admits. "After all, it’s much nicer when you’re the only expert around."

Logistical Problems
Almost all superintendent couples seek jobs in close proximity to each other. This is a particularly big challenge in rural areas, where there are fewer and more far-flung school districts.

The Wards, who are among the longest-serving superintendent couples, have spent nearly two decades working in Texas school districts. Although all their moves have been related to Jim’s employment, each offered Mary a chance to advance in her career as well. "She’s so smart, she could get a job anywhere," Jim says.

Since January, the two have put their relationship to a new test. After nine years as superintendent in Ingram, Mary assumed the superintendent’s job in Dripping Springs, Texas, 100 miles east of her husband’s outpost in Harper. He will stay put until December when he plans to retire. "Then he can follow me for awhile," Mary quips.

The Wards say they’ve been luckier than some other superintendent couples in that they’ve always been able to find satisfying jobs near each other and never have had to live apart.

That’s become the logistical challenge for Sharon and John Hill, the Illinois superintendents who live 200 miles apart on opposite sides of the state. (John’s brother, Kenneth, is superintendent of the Nashville Community High School District, approximately halfway between Sharon and John.) Each lives in what Sharon calls "a little cabin"--hers on a pond in Valmeyer, just south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River and his on a lake in East Richland, not far from the Indiana border. Generally, it’s John who makes the 2¼-hour commute each weekend.

The upside, he says, is that work is pretty much off-limits on Saturday and Sunday. "We kind of date on the weekends," he says, while admitting there’s often a little school talk over dinner. "But it’s not like we sit down and work on our Illinois State Learning Goals on Saturday night."

Then there’s the case of the McDonalds, who work just 15 miles (and a ferry ride across the Columbia River) apart in adjacent school districts in Washington, but live in two separate houses. Under the arrangement, dictated by residency requirements in each district, the McDonalds take turns visiting each other.

But even superintendent couples who live in the same house in the same town say they don’t actually see that much of each other, particularly during the work week. "We’re both working 65-hour weeks and going in different directions most nights," says Dot Weber. One of her concerns: "What happens at retirement when we’re together all the time?"

Survival Techniques
Over the years, these couples have found ways to cope. The Wards try to have a home-cooked meal every Wednesday night. The fact that both the McDonalds attend school board meetings on the same night of the week is a plus. Because they can share travel time and hotel rooms at out-of-town meetings and conferences, many superintendent couples find such trips an ideal way to fulfill their professional responsibilities while spending time together. Beyond that, says Jim Ward, "our districts split the cost. What a bargain."

On the other hand, the Weber-Schroeder home has become a jungle of modern communications technology. It is equipped with three phone lines, two cell phones, two computers and a fax machine. And when the phone rings late at night or early in the morning, Weber says laughing, "Each of us hopes it’s for the other person."

That’s a far cry from the early days of the Witts’ marriage, when they shared a single phone--one constantly in use on snowy nights as both Pam and Arnie consulted with staff over the need to close schools. Although their districts were only 40 miles apart, they found they couldn’t always make the same call. That’s because Pam’s district was located at the southern tip of Lake Michigan and sometimes receive much more snow than Arnie’s.

The Helmses, who live in the mountains of northern California, also deal with dueling decisions about weather-related school closings. "Her district is at the snowline and 2,000 feet higher than mine," says Don. "I seldom have to worry about snow, but I still wake up at five in the morning when her staff calls her."

As more women move up through the ranks and assume the superintendent’s job, it’s likely the number of superintendent couples will grow. "I expect it will get more prevalent," says Molly Helms, a superintendent for five years in California. "When you go to (superintendent) meetings and conferences you make lots of contacts and see many of the same people."

If the phenomenon indeed becomes more common, more and more superintendents will find themselves without the traditional "supportive spouse"--generally a wife--that so many of their predecessors relied on to host school district events, contribute to bake sales or volunteer in the schools.

Says Pat McDonald, who has played both roles: "When you’re a superintendent, too, your social obligations to his district are limited by your responsibilities to your own district. Now, if he needs cookies for the PTA bake sale, he’s going to have to go out and buy them."

Priscilla Pardini is a free-lance education writer in Shorewood, Wis. E-mail: pardini@execpc.com