Federal Dateline

Why You Do What You Do

by Nick Penning

The National Institute on Educational Governance, Finance, Policymaking and Management recently asked AASA to list the issues of highest interest to school leaders.

We responded in a way that we hoped would help governance groups—particularly state legislatures, school boards and departments of education—understand that superintendents function as CEOs of what is often the largest enterprise in a local community. You employ more staff, oversee the health, welfare, safety, and education of more people, serve more meals, and run the largest fleet of motor vehicles than nearly any other business or institution in town.

Your actions and directions are not just overseen by a local board of education that hired you. Your work is often dictated by the decisions of state legislatures, the governor, the state board of education, and the state department of education. You have far and away more people trying to tell you what to do than the CEO of IBM. Usually these all-knowing folks sit in the state capital or the nation’s capital, further complicating what we all know is a task that is complex and often difficult to define—the education of young people.

Understanding Complexity

Before entering education, I remember being astounded by the existence of a national center for the study of reading. How can a subject so simple possibly warrant the establishment of an ongoing national center? Then I had children of my own. One daughter, to our astonishment, knew the alphabet at 18 months and was reading at 3. But subsequent children took far longer, well into their school years, before they began to read. I learned to appreciate the complexity of reading instruction and how the work of a national center would indeed be invaluable in making sense of the ever-changing research findings.

So the fact that you and your well-educated colleagues succeed with so many youngsters should warrant a blue ribbon and applause from the public and its various elected and appointed bodies.

You are in charge of the daily operation of your district in as smooth and trouble-free ways as possible. You’re supposed to ensure children are safe, that you have adequate staff to educate them well, that they learn, that their buses run on time, and that you have sufficient classroom space to avoid overcrowding—even as local voters refuse to raise tax rates or approve a bond sale for necessary construction or renovation. And, if you’re in a state subject to the foils of winter, you have the opportunity to declare a "snow day," a decision that generally pleases no one except kids.

Top Challenges

And what are your major challenges? A 1994 survey of AASA members turned up these top five: (1) adequate school financing, (2) cost reductions/budget cuts, (3) covering responsibilities with fewer staff, (4) restructuring/renewal within the school system, and (5) curriculum planning and reform.

I’d say that’s enough for any CEO’s platter. All these challenges are boiling around you, awaiting your decision, while you await a staff report or board decision. The modern superintendency is so rife with challenges that one must often wonder why anyone in their right mind would take them on.

That reminds me of a discussion two presidents of historically black colleges had several years ago when I served on the staff of the College Fund/United Negro College Fund. One president said to the other, "I hear you’re taking the presidency of ‘such-and-such’ college. Why?"

"Because of The Cause," the second president’s responded.

Lord knows, neither man was being paid that handsomely to do the jobs they were doing. And when you compare your school district to any local, regional or state-based corporation of similar size, anyone can tell you that in public education you’re severely underpaid. You probably could walk into a business tomorrow, take it over with far fewer headaches and overseers, and turn out a respectable product or service at a decent profit. But you have chosen to deal with the challenges of more higher education degrees and meet certification requirements for running a school because of one reason: you care.

You care about kids, you care about the nourishment of their young minds; you care about their future and helping to make a better life for so many; you care about your country and our nation’s democracy. You are different, and because of all you do, this nation and this world is better than when you first found it. And for that society should, though it often does not, thank you.

Nick Penning is AASA, Policy Analyst