Feature

When Termination's in the Air

With patience and savvy, superintendents can recover from the sting of being discharged by PRISCILLA PARDINI


When he opened the registered letter from his bosses, the members of the Central Howell, Ore., school board, then-Superintendent Jack Lorts was stunned. He was being fired from his job, dismissed for cause, the letter said.

"It came completely out of the blue," Lorts recalls. "I'd had some minor disagreements with two new board members, but absolutely nothing had happened to prepare me for this. I had no idea what the cause was."

Nearly two years later, Lorts, 58, is superintendent of schools in Fossil, another small, rural Oregon district. Looking back, he traces his conflict with the Central Howell board to several personnel matters that had sparked disagreement--in Lorts' words, "the kind of politics that takes place in little communities." And although he considers the move to Fossil good for his career, Lorts won't soon forget the traumatic, gut-wrenching experience of losing his job.

"I was really devastated," he admits. "I'd looked upon the board members as my friends, and had planned on being there until retirement. It was hard not to take it personally."

Once a rare occurrence among the ranks of superintendents, what happened to Lorts has become relatively commonplace, an occupational hazard for those heading up not only the nation's largest urban districts, but also its smallest, most rural school systems. Of course, some superintendents are justifiably fired for cause. But increasingly, many skilled, competent educators also find themselves out on the street, frequently victims of school board whims or communitywide political agendas.

There is a bright side: These days, being forced out of a superintendency rarely carries a stigma or spells the end of a promising career. Capable superintendents who have been displaced almost always land new superintendencies--if, that is, they know how best to handle the situation.

Common Occurrence
When Lorts was fired, he quickly discovered his predicament was far from unique. "I learned there are a lot of superintendents out there walking around with baggage [including] all three of the guys who were finalists for my [new] job," he says.

Jim Murphy, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, goes even further. "There are only two kinds of superintendents: those who are in trouble and those who don't yet know they're in trouble," he muses.

To be sure, most superintendents leave their jobs voluntarily, usually to move on to larger or better-financed school districts offering bigger professional challenges and the potential for greater satisfaction--not to mention higher salaries and benefits. Gary Marx, senior consultant with AASA, says others leave to take jobs in the private sector, lured by financial incentives such as lucrative stock options and profit-sharing plans.

Still others are opting for second-tier administrative posts within a school district, concluding that the pay differential between a superintendency and a deputy's position, for example, is not enough to warrant taking on the added pressures, responsibilities and risks of the top job.

Yet, according to the most recent data gathered by AASA, 16.7 percent of all superintendents who leave their jobs do so because of conflicts with school boards. And Murphy estimates that between 10 and 12 percent of New Jersey superintendents who leave each year are forced out. "We're finding that more superintendents than ever before are in need of a support network--and that increasingly it's because of termination," he says.

Still, Joseph Villani, an associate executive director of the National School Boards Association, says he does not believe school boards change superintendents capriciously. "We don't advocate that as the first solution they ought to turn to when conflicts arise," he says. "We believe very strongly in developing a board-superintendent leadership team and that the superintendent is a critical partner in the success of the school board in its primary function of engaging the community and promoting student achievement."


Board Politics
But Michael Kirst, a professor at Stanford University who specializes in the politics of education, says many terminations can be traced to conflicts between superintendents and board members over values and philosophies.

Typically, the stage is set for such conflict when two or more incumbent board members are challenged and unseated. "That's an indicator of community dissatisfaction and will transfer into dissatisfaction with the superintendent and, ultimately, an involuntary turnover," Kirst says.

Increasingly, new board members are elected on single-issue platforms or by special-interest groups--a situation likely to spell trouble for a superintendent. "You wake up in the morning and everything's fine," Murphy says. "Then you go to a meeting on an issue such as family life education where there are 500 people and no matter what decision you make, when you go home half of the people like you and half don't."

Patricia Dustman, former superintendent of the Queen Creek, Ariz., schools near Phoenix, left her post--which she described as "the best job I ever had"--after a series of school board elections found her working for a board dominated by members of the religious right. Espousing an agenda that called for a back-to-basics approach and charter schools, a majority of board members targeted her for removal.

Dustman, who recently earned her doctorate at Arizona State University, is philosophical. "It's just politics," she says. "I try never to confuse politics with job performance."

Kirst says superintendents also get into trouble over rapidly changing community demographics accompanied by demands for change the superintendent is unable or unwilling to meet. Another potential pitfall is attempting to bring about a level of change that falls outside what Kirst calls a community's "zone of consent."

That's what happened in the Menomonie School District in northwestern Wisconsin over the issue of the high school's Indian logo. Superintendent Dave Smette supported a student council proposal to change the logo considered racially insensitive, only to see the move reversed last year by a new board acting on behalf of a majority of the community and student body.

Smette says the controversy, which consumed a lot of time and energy, prompted him to consider another job offer. But in the end, Smette--who had been forced out of a superintendency in North Dakota eight years ago due to school board turnover--decided to stay, convinced he had the support of a majority of board members on educational issues. "The logo was something I could live with," he says.

Larry Zenke, former superintendent of schools in Tulsa, Okla., and Duval County, Fla., believes the increase in board-superintendent conflicts can be traced to the changing makeup of school boards. Once mostly made up of local businessmen generally content to rubber stamp a superintendent's decisions, boards today are more likely to want a hands-on role in the district's day-to-day operation, as well as policy making.

Zenke worked for a board in Duval County that included three former school administrators. "They enjoyed the board role and got more involved than many would suggest was proper," he says. By December 1996, the board had become fragmented, and Zenke was finding it difficult to "get four votes in any direction because of the coalitions and different agendas that existed."

Foreseeing problems, he voluntarily renegotiated his contract and now works as the district's desegregation adviser.

Warning Signs
Being alert to the warning signs that the ax is about to fall is key to surviving and bouncing back from termination, says Ronald E. Barnes, managing partner of The Bickert Group, a superintendent search firm based in Deerfield, Ill. "We tend to have this internal belief system that says everything's OK, that people are reasonable and will work with you," Barnes says. "But that's not always the case."

The first sign of trouble is often a decrease in board-superintendent communication. Typically, board members begin "talking to other people for information instead of you," says Max Pierson, a professor of educational administration at Western Illinois University who runs career-networking sessions each year at AASA's national conference. Another bad sign: "When you walk into the board room and the conversation quits," adds Barnes.

He says it is common for board members who are poised to move against a superintendent to suddenly begin rejecting his or her recommendations. "If you put up a name for a principal's position and the board rejects it, that's a pretty big danger sign," Barnes says. "When people call me and tell me that's happening, I say 'It's time to polish up your resume.'"

Kenneth Underwood, senior partner with Harold Webb Associates, an educational search firm, says that kind of opposition is particularly troubling if it emanates from more than one board member. After that, he says, "things usually never get better."

Board votes on a superintendent's contract renewal are especially significant. "When the annual vote goes from 7-0 to 6-1 to 5-2," Pierson says, "that's a pretty good sign you've worn out your welcome." Pierson, who worked for 14 years as a superintendent in Illinois, says he resigned one superintendency the night before a school board election. "When people run on a platform [that says] 'I want to fire the superintendent,' it's a good time to leave."

Underwood also urges superintendents to pay close attention to complaints coming from small segments of the community. "When a group of special-ed parents or far-right parents or the chamber of commerce starts registering dissatisfaction," he says, "it transfers to individual board members who either espoused their cause before they joined the board or take up their cause."

Fight vs. Flight
Dissension on a school board or in the community doesn't necessarily have to spell the beginning of the end for a superintendent. Nor should it, says Smette, the Wisconsin superintendent who stayed on the job after the Indian logo controversy. "We should be alarmed by these rising mobility rates," he says. "How can we make difficult decisions and put in place a process for change if every time the going gets rough we're changing superintendents? Superintendents need the skills to communicate and adapt to different situations and work with different groups of people."

When William Adams, superintendent of the Salem County Vocational Technical Schools in Woodstown, N.J., heard rumors that a new member of his board had been appointed specifically "to watch me," he didn't panic. "My attitude is, forewarned is fine, but I can't go into this with a negative attitude," says Adams, an AASA Executive Committee member.

He made certain that lines of communication were open and that the board member was well-informed. In the end, the two developed a relationship based on trust. Adams now considers the official "an outstanding board member."

Should a superintendent under fire ever fight for his or her job? Yes, says Barnes, the search consultant, but only "if you believe you can ultimately improve the organization by staying and if your leadership will be effective."

Sometimes such a battle takes place over ethics, as was the case of Herman Sirois, superintendent in Levittown, N.Y. He emerged victorious, and his job intact, after being suspended by the Levittown school board on charges of alleged malfeasance. (See related story, ***sidebar***.) His case suggests it is appropriate for superintendents to fight arbitrary and capricious allegations.

Arnold Goldberg, who last year became superintendent of the Shoreham-Wading River School District on Long Island, said it is appropriate at times to challenge board members on educational issues. "If the board is pressuring you to put 35 kids in a class when all your research, training and experience says 30 should be the absolute maximum, you have a responsibility to espouse your philosophy," says Goldberg. "If it represents a different point of view from the majority of your board, so be it."

He adds that any such debate should be handled respectfully, openly and honestly. "And on policy issues, the board of education has the final say."

Knowing When to Leave
Barnes draws the line at taking one's case against a school board to the public. "That's pretty dangerous," he says. "When you start asking for that kind of help, you become the political pinball in the community and I don't think that's good for schools."

Robert French, now in his fifth and final year as superintendent of the Orange Unified School District in Orange County, Calif., agrees. "Trying to get the community on your side not only does not work, it hurts in the long run. You'll get a bad reputation."

Adds French: "When it starts to come down on you, don't fight it. Control the conditions under which you leave. That's the real key. You should be out there looking. Get your papers up to date _ your letters of recommendation. Recognize when things have turned sour. Smile and say 'Thank you.' You have to go out with dignity and class."

Underwood says he worries about "superintendents who say 'I can fight this,' or a superintendent who's been there a long time and feels he or she is more powerful than the board." He says such scenarios usually bring chaos to a school system and ultimately defeat a superintendent.

Like a bad marriage, some superintendent-board relationships just won't click. These district leaders should leave on their own accord with credentials untarnished.

Jeff Grotsky, an area superintendent in the Baltimore City Public Schools, has been in such a situation. His last job, as superintendent in Harford County, Md., turned out to be a bad fit. "I'm a big city schools guy and Harford was too rural, too suburban for me," says Grotsky, who has also worked as an administrator in Milwaukee, Wis., and Grand Rapids, Mich. "We did some good things, but I had a real hard time, and the board and I decided the marriage was not that good."

After Harford County bought out Grotsky's contract, he was offered his current job in neighboring Baltimore, charged with improving student outcomes in the city's 14 poorest-performing elementary schools. "They had watched what I had done in Harford and knew what I'd be able to accomplish," Grotsky says.

Coping With Pain
Still, some superintendents don't heed the warning signs and are completely stunned by a vote of non-renewal. "I've had people call me, shocked and devastated," Murphy says. "Sometimes, their names have been splattered all over the place, and they're convinced they'll never get another job. I try to convince them it's not the end of the world."

Avoid panicking, the experts say, and remember that a dismissal isn't necessarily a reflection on one's ability. "Superintendents usually get in trouble because of political issues, not educational issues," Underwood says.

As in professional baseball, says Barnes, "when things aren't going well, you fire the manager, fire the coach." Pierson pushes the sports analogy further, noting "We have people who win the pennant out looking for jobs two years later."

Calling long-term job security a vestige of the past, Pierson adds: "It's not a question of whether you're going to be fired; it's a question of when. We teach facilitating and all kinds of management skills, but the bottom line is: your friends come and go, but your enemies stay and multiply, and intermarry, and run for the school board. It's going to happen at some point."

Adams says as president of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators in 1997 he became aware of the lack of support systems in place for superintendents who suddenly found themselves out of a job. "We in the profession sometimes will say to each other, 'That person's in trouble,'" he says. "But we're too busy to pick up the phone and talk with a colleague. Or we shy away."

After one fired New Jersey superintendent committed suicide, Adams helped organize NJASA's Wellness Committee, a resource for those with health or addiction problems, as well as those forced out of their jobs.

AASA and many of its statewide affiliates also provide their members with access to or financial support for legal help. Education lawyers can advise displaced superintendents about their rights and help them negotiate contract buyouts.

"We have to remember that we have contracts, as well as legal and constitutional rights," says Zenke. "We need to make certain those rights are protected."

Goldberg, who was notified in June 1997 that his contract as superintendent in Elmont, N.Y., would not be renewed, stresses the importance of getting first-rate legal advice. "Make sure you hire an attorney locally who knows all about school boards and superintendent contracts."

Starting Over
Being ousted from one superintendency doesn't have to stand in the way of getting that next job. In fact, Murphy estimates that most displaced superintendents he has worked with have landed new superintendencies in less than a year.

Barnes, whose firm conducts about two dozen superintendent searches a year, encourages candidates to be open and honest with search consultants. "The worst thing possible is for the consultant to have only half the information," he says. "Particularly in urban areas, the media is very quick to find out everything that happened in your last district."

Thomas E. Glass, chairman of the department of educational leadership at the University of Memphis, points out that most search consultants are former superintendents. "They understand the dynamics," he says.

And while school boards in the midst of a superintendent search certainly consider factors related to a candidate's last job, they also look at that person's entire career, Murphy says. "If there's been a problem in the previous district, boards look at extenuating circumstances and _ get both sides of the story."

Sam Gerla, superintendent in Touchet, Wash., warns newly ousted superintendents not to jump desperately at the first job offer they receive. "Just because you get an offer, doesn't mean it's the best situation for you," says Gerla, who spent five years teaching higher education classes at Washington State University and Eastern Oregon State College, and who served last year as chairman of the Washington Association of School Administrators' Small Schools Committee. "If it doesn't feel right, you're better off turning it down than finding out later you've dug yourself into a hole."

Goldberg, now in his fourth Long Island superintendency, believes there will "always be places for competent, caring superintendents who are alert to the issues within a community, care deeply about its children and have the right instinct for quality education."

"It doesn't get me down," he says of the increasingly precarious nature of the superintendency. "If you know you've given your best and have acted competently, morally and responsibly and can accept the fact that there are matters beyond your control, then you can look yourself in the mirror and go get 'em. We need people like that in the superintendency."

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