Feature

The Private Sector Beckons

Former superintendents describe their shift from public education to corporate management and sales by KRISTA RAMSEY


Most people would have said it was enough.

 

Ernest Fleishman had invested his entire career in education. He had spent two decades as a superintendent. He was still productive and popular. His colleagues were ready to send him off into a hard-earned and well-deserved retirement. But Fleishman wasn’t finished yet.

In 1989, as superintendent of Greenwich, Conn., schools, he was just completing a four-year term on the advisory board for Scholastic Inc. when the giant educational publishing company’s CEO approached him with a job offer. Fleishman listened carefully, then accepted.

"In 20 years I had learned a lot. I decided it was time for me to reach out, to contribute in a different way," he says. "For me, it was the crossing of those two things--20 years of feeling at the top of my game and the feeling of wanting to give something more."

For the last 7½ years, Fleishman has served as Scholastic’s senior vice president for education and corporate relations, making him one of the earliest of a new wave of public school district administrators departing their jobs for private-sector positions.

Some, like Fleishman, leave at a point when they could just retire. But others are choosing to leave in mid-career, sometimes moving their families and risking their financial stability to seek fresh challenges, wider influence or bigger paychecks in private industry.

Observers say the phenomenon--still affecting a relatively small number of superintendents, but among them some high-profile names--is a commentary on both the marketable skills superintendents bring to their jobs and the ever-growing challenges that affect the lives of superintendents.

"When I left, a lot of people said to me, "You must be delighted to be changing jobs. That bothered me. I said, ‘Oh no, I’ve spent 20 years in a wonderful job and have been successful,’" Fleishman says. "But the superintendency is a rough place. People get chewed up and stomped on. I’ve seen it. I see people departing because it’s rough and tumble and they think, ‘Who needs it?’"

Knocking On Doors
Whether from frustration or ambition or the need to pay their own children’s tuition bills, administrators are more inclined today to say "yes" when private companies come calling. Indeed, in many cases, superintendents initiate the contact themselves, often testing the employment waters with companies with whom their schools have done business over the years.

"Most of the superintendents we’ve talked to know a good bit about us. They’ve done their homework," says Chris Whittle, founder of the Edison Project, a school-management company that has hired three district superintendents and six assistant superintendents. "About half the time, they knock on our door. The other half, we knock on theirs."

Most industry observers don’t predict a widescale exodus of top-quality performers because the private sector’s need for educators is not that great. But some say, with the boom in education-related businesses, the number of those leaving public education to join the corporate ranks of private industry could grow in the years ahead.

"Before 1992, it was not an occurrence. Now everyone in the educational leadership industry has former superintendents in executive offices," says John McLaughlin, editor of The Education Industry Report, which tracks privatization efforts. "It’s not just education management groups, but those dealing in contracted services."

What Roles They Play
What private companies want from former superintendents and how they use them differ from company to company. In some, they serve on the front lines as a well-credentialed, well-connected sales force. In others, they are a behind-the-scenes think tank, alerting their employers to hot trends in education, supplying academic research and sometimes breathing a healthy dose of reality into product lines and programs.

A growing number of companies expect a mixture of the two roles--part seller, part scholar. But the most important thing former superintendents bring is credibility.

"We wanted to be a company of educators helping other educators, instead of another private company coming in offering solutions," says Randy Best, founder and chairman of Dallas-based Voyager Expanded Learning, which provides extended-day, summer and in-school enrichment programs for elementary schools.

Best has hired a dozen school superintendents, among them a former California superintendent of the year. And, for three months last fall, the company had both the incoming and outgoing presidents of AASA on its corporate roster. Both Voyager’s chief executive officer and president are former local school superintendents. The other ex-superintendents serve the company as regional presidents.

At Voyager, the former superintendents meet once every two months to brainstorm new ideas and improvements for current programs and to update the company on educational research. But clearly their major function is sales.

Dan Domenech, AASA’s president-elect who became superintendent in Fairfax County, Va., on Jan. 1, got a taste of the sales life during his three months with the company beginning last August. He says he spent his time "mostly making contacts and then presenting to people, which isn’t so different from what I was doing as superintendent. … I was constantly selling ideas."

Influencing Key Decisions
At the Edison Project, former superintendents work in four areas: curriculum and assessment; start-up of new schools; management of schools; and sales.

Whittle says Edison relied heavily on the former superintendents for planning the Edison school design. Further, he says, their opinion influenced Edison to change its identity from a national network of private schools to a network of public schools managed by a private-sector company.

While the company has lured some well-known and well-connected superintendents--among them, Deborah McGriff from Detroit--Whittle says educational networks were not the superintendents’ most attractive asset.

"I don’t believe in recruiting on the basis of network. I don’t really think networks count for much, and they erode rather quickly," Whittle says. "My strategy is to recruit tremendous performers, and they’ll find the networks and make new ones."

Resourcefulness is just one of the things Whittle wants. "Work ethic is another big one," he admits. "This is 14- to 16-hour-day stuff. A lot of superintendents view that as a reduction in hours."

Edison also wants a clear commitment to children, and "a certain open-mindedness," Whittle says. "We don t believe we have all the answers, and we want people who will help us continue to look for them."

In fact, a critical eye is one of the most useful things McGriff believes she brings to her senior vice president’s position at Edison.

After being approached by Whittle, she looked for reasons not to make the move. But what she saw in the school design was "a more powerful thing than any negative I could have generated," she says.

McGriff was attracted to things she had been fighting for in public schools for years--teachers working in teams, teachers and students staying together for several years, cooperative learning and enriched curriculum. So she came on board four years ago, along with her 15 years of experience in public schools in New York, Cambridge, Mass., Milwaukee and Detroit.

"What I brought was knowledge of K-12 public education--the real world, how it works, how public educators think, how things really get done in public education," she says.

This grasp of public-school dynamics helps McGriff discern which schools will make good Edison partners--and gives her the confidence to move on from those that won’t. "We don’t go to school districts and allow them to pretend to be an Edison project," she says. "The key elements must be implemented. We want a unanimous or near-unanimous board, and we want flexibility with the teachers unions."

The fact that she can ask for--and win--such points with Edison points out a significant difference from her former job. "You can’t walk away when you’re superintendent," she says. "You can’t walk away from teachers’ unions. You can’t walk away from the board you have."

Applied Knowledge
Understanding the politics of public education is a considerable asset for former superintendents. But so is a working knowledge of boilers and budgets.

Michael Ronan says his experience as superintendent in a small district in Uxbridge, Mass., gives him credibility and rapport with parents interested in establishing charter schools in their community--the focus of the company for whom he now works, Beacon Education Management based in Nashville, Tenn.

"I can speak to parents, who are often the founders of charter schools, in terms of translating what they want into reality," Ronan says. "What I brought was an extensive knowledge of educational practices, but also a knowledge of how to get a high level of student achievement with the economic parameters often present in small districts and in charter schools."

Ronan, who started last winter as vice president of the company, is now chief operating officer. All Beacon employees have backgrounds in education.

At Voyager, chairman Best looks not only for experience in education but allegiance to public schools.

"Here’s our job description: Someone proven to be highly dedicated, not someone who has given up on the system, because we’re committed to public education," he says. "We want people who are proven innovators, open-minded. We also looked for people who would be highly respected by their peers."

Reputation earned Bob Minor a look from Sylvan Learning Systems. As superintendent in North Smithfield, R.I., and then East Lyme, Conn., Minor was an administrator known for piloting programs, publishing articles and working closely with the state department of education.

Sylvan liked what it saw, earning Minor a vice presidency and a key role in Sylvan’s bid to enter public education nationally. In his nine years with the company, which is based in Baltimore, Sylvan has entered partnerships with more than 400 public and non-public schools, and Minor has risen to senior vice president of education.

Not for the Money
In that scenario lie the reasons most superintendents jump to private corporations.

Although some observers say those landing executive positions at the national level are pulling down salaries from $150,000 to $250,000, editor McLaughlin contends, "The No. 1 consideration is not money. … The main reason they leave is being able to affect change, to fulfill their dreams in educating children. The world is suddenly fresh and open to them. They’re not superintendents in a district any more. They’re superintendents in a nation."

It is heady stuff for those in a profession known for its ambition and love of a challenge. No longer hampered by community politics, changing school board coalitions or shrinking state budgets, most of the departed school leaders revel in the chance to make their businesses grow and pour themselves into their new corporate roles.

"I enjoy large-scale things. I like to take things and build them," says Vernon Johnson, former superintendent of the Richardson Independent School District outside Dallas, Texas, who now serves as chief executive officer at Voyager. "This company was very young when I joined, and it gave me that chance to start things from scratch and grow it."

That opportunity, however, comes at a cost for Johnson. In the first 10 months of 1997, he covered more than 100,000 miles in airplanes, which meant he saw his family less than he did as superintendent. (See related story.)

"I’m more tired than I was as superintendent," he admits, "but it’s a different tired. My tired is not battling people who don’t want to do something good for kids, the back-stabbing, the politics. My tired is working hard, developing hard, running hard, traveling hard. I feel good."

McGriff likes the new-found flexibility she has with Edison, a job that keeps her on the road three days a week, but allows her to work from her Milwaukee home the rest of the time.

"I love the difference in working style," she says. "As a superintendent, people don’t think you’re working unless you’re what’s considered ‘at work’--in the office or in school but not at home. With Edison, most of my work has to be done where people are. The ‘virtual’ office is real with Edison. You have everything you need at home. Then, for a change of scenery, I’m in Colorado or New York. As long as the planes are on time, I’m OK."

McGriff says her entry into the private sector has given her another rare opportunity--the chance to watch a maverick American businessman, Chris Whittle, up close.

In turn, Whittle says, risk-taking and economic venture, more than high salaries or lavish benefits, are the qualities that lure educators.

"What the entrepreneurial side has always contributed is the sense of possibility. If you’ve ever been around a company that has spurred an industry or had tremendous growth, it’s an exhilarating experience, especially in schools," Whittle says. "One of the things we bring to the party is the entrepreneurial environment."

And because educators can move among Edison schools across the country or into the corporate ranks, the company offers "tremendous career opportunities," Whittle contends. "When you’ve been superintendent of a school system, what do you do next? Edison has plenty of what-do-you-do-next possibilities."

Learning on the Job
So usually after careful thought and significant soul-searching, a growing number of top administrators are making the jump into the corporate ranks.

Most say their former lives prepared them well. They come with good public relations skills. They understand staffing needs, can deal with budgets and know too well the process of selling ideas to school boards and communities.

But for some, their ease and expertise may actually make the move more difficult. Almost all say they’ve had lessons to learn in their new positions.

"When you’re a superintendent, especially for 20 years, you arrive at a degree of mastery," says Fleishman, of Scholastic. "Then suddenly you’re thrown into a new field, and you don’t have mastery. You have to have a quick learning curve, and you don’t always feel comfortable."

The people who have the most trouble adjusting, Fleishman says, are those who’ve gotten used to working within a bureaucracy, and especially those who prefer a hierarchical arrangement.

"In private industry, you’re working in lots of team settings, not through a lot of levels," he says. "And businesses want to move more quickly, make decisions quickly."

Voyager chairman Best says, conversely, that those who avoided bureaucratic methods as superintendents sometimes have trouble contending with them as sales people.

"In some instances--in a very understanding way--there’s been a bit of impatience to get on with what works," he says. "These superintendents have to be able to tell our story in a persuasive enough way to get the gatekeepers in the district to take it."

Who’s in the Pipeline?
What the former superintendents did not expect were the discouraging tales they hear in the field.

"What was a little surprising for them is that they found that many of the superintendents they call on are really hurting," Best says. "They’re feeling tremendous pressure. A lot of their visits begin almost with a sense of therapy. Many superintendents don’t know who to talk to. They don’t have anybody to talk to."

For Voyager CEO Johnson, who’s only a couple years removed from those pressures, it may be the reason so many of his colleagues seem willing to leave their public school jobs behind.

"The loss of superintendents was already a problem. The role of superintendent has to be one of the hardest jobs in America," he says. "If you look down the pipeline, down over the principals and young teachers, and ask how many of those people are aspiring to take the superintendent’s job and get killed, have their families uprooted every few years, you won’t find many. Have we created a job that nobody wants anymore?"

Krista Ramsey, a columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer, is a free-lance education writer in Cincinnati. E-mail: Ramsey_D@hcca.ohio.gov