Guest Column

Getting at the Roots of Superintendent Burnout


Last year, as part of a new school finance law, the Vermont legislature mandated a study of governance in Vermont schools. The legislature's interest, or at least the interest of several legislators, was to reduce the number of school districts and thereby improve efficiency.

The law misses the point. The real problem in school governance in Vermont is not our large number of districts. The real problem is administrator burnout.

Vermont's school governance system looks odd to school people from farther west. As is the case generally throughout New England, Vermont has no significant government functions performed by counties. Towns and cities therefore must provide all local services. This keeps services close at hand but can hurt efficiency.

Nearly every one of Vermont's 250 towns has a school board. Also, there are about 50 "union" districts, each of which serves several towns, typically for high school grades. Vermont thus has about 300 operating school districts, even though its total student population, 100,000, is smaller than many city school districts.

In addition, Vermont has about 60 "supervisory union" districts, the primary purpose of which is to hire a superintendent of schools. In rural areas, a superintendent typically oversees several elementary schools and a high school. Each typically is run by a separate school board.

Overwhelming Demands
The supervisory union mechanism is imperfect. Superintendents in rural areas often serve a half-dozen school districts or more. Each district typically employs and dismisses its own principal, and each votes separately on a budget and a local tax rate. Moreover, in some areas the towns within a supervisory union are economically dissimilar and have different ideas about what their children need in school.

The obvious solution is to consolidate. The Vermont legislature has found the idea alluring. Last year, several state senators proposed reducing the number of school districts to approximately 15, thereby eliminating about 95 percent of existing school districts. I believe that reducing the number of school districts would be a mistake.

Larger school districts are likely to reduce public participation in the schools and the sense of public ownership. I have served on two school boards in Vermont. First I served on the town board, which operates an elementary school for 175 students. Now I sit on a union high school board that serves students from five towns and operates a school with an enrollment of 900. 1 have found an enormous difference in public participation and ownership.

Our town elementary school is the focus of the community. Parents volunteer frequently for after-school sports and clubs, and many parents are actively involved with teachers in supplementing education, both in the classroom and at home. The union school cannot lay claim to anything like this level of participation. Certainly there are inherent differences between a K-6 school and a 7-12 school, but there is also a strong public feeling that the town school is "our school" and needs our support.

Reducing the number of districts won't necessarily save money. Certainly there would be fewer officials carrying the title of superintendent if Vermont had 15 school districts instead of 60 supervisory unions and 300 school districts. But it isn't at all clear there would be fewer administrators. Indeed, larger cities in other states often have many assistant superintendents who perform the same functions as Vermont superintendents. Eliminating districts may produce little more than new titles for the same people doing the same work.

Guaranteed Burnout
On the other hand, school boards cannot ignore existing problems. By all accounts, one serious problem in Vermont schools is a high turnover rate. Annually, about 30 percent of superintendencies become vacant. Several districts each year have extended periods when they operate without a superintendent at all.

A high turnover rate is more than an annoyance, it is a serious barrier to effective school management. We cannot have a third of our managers in trainee status each year and expect to accomplish much. A Vermont superintendent can spend a year learning the job, a second year beginning to organize his or her program and a third year looking for the next job.

Our system makes being a superintendent a burnout job for most people. Until recently, my own supervisory union expected the superintendent to attend a minimum of eight routine school board meetings per month. In addition, the superintendent was expected to offer informed advice to 32 individual board members on any and all issues, to know the budgets and financial condition of six districts, to serve as the chief planner for any construction projects, to mediate conflicts between boards and principals, to deal with grievances and negotiations, to cancel school in bad weather, to oversee contracts for busing and for milk and (oh, by the way) to be the educational leader of the district.

Even if all of this were possible and it isn't-the superintendent gets the added challenge of automatically being in the middle whenever any two of the six district boards have a policy conflict.

Scaling Back Expectations
During my seven years as a board member, I have seen this system create unreasonable demands. A superintendent who spends two days a week mediating a dispute between a school board and its principal doesn't have enough time to attend to five other boards, other schools and other duties. Even worse, the superintendent has no time left to do the thing we really need the most--- produce a coherent K-12 experience for students.

My district recently has made some .efforts to scale back on these expectations. Our efforts have taken several forms:

  • reducing expectations that the superintendent will attend every school board meeting and stay for the whole meeting;

  • relying more on principals to serve as the chief executive officer (or at least chief operating officer) for each board and as the educational leader at each school site; and

  • separating functions within the supervisory office, so that financial and budget matters can be made primarily the responsibility of the business manager and curriculum development assigned to a specialist who does not face the thousand distractions facing a superintendent.

    These changes may be the way to transform the superintendency into a job that looks attractive over the long term. if not, we need to make even more changes. If we can solve superintendent burnout, perhaps we can prevent the state legislature from doing something unwise under the banner of governance reform.

    School boards need to talk about superintendent burnout, its causes and what can be done about it. The superintendent of schools shouldn't be the equivalent of a temporary employee. The purpose of the job should be stated clearly, and board members should ensure it offers enough professional and personal satisfaction that a good person will want to stay.

    Peter Bluhm is past president of the Vermont School Boards Association and a local board member for seven years. An attorney, he is director of regulatory policy for the Vermont Public Service Board, 112 State St., Montpelier, Vt. 05602. E-mail: