Administrative Ecology

Understanding the relationship among school leaders, the organization and the community environment to dispel claims about the "impossibility" of the superintendency by Augustus C. McGarity III and Wanda Maulding

Using today's superintendency as an administrative platform, current literature describes a preponderance of stress in school leadership. Over the past decade, research reflects a dire concern for the status of the superintendency in terms of the quantity and quality of applicants for job openings due to the complex nature of the position.

An exhaustive analysis of recent literature reveals a lack of introspective vision needed to fully understand the dynamics between administrative shortages and specific characteristics surrounding the superintendency. Defining the interconnections between school leaders and their respective organizational environment is a vital first step.

"Stress has to do a lot with one's mindset," says James Pughsley, former superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Public Schools. "Superintendents should be striving for success, not survival. ... As I strive for success, I use stress as a motivator, but I'm sure those shooting for survival can find plenty of stress in the position."

The sheer level of pressure that researchers and practitioners have associated with this daunting position has led some to label it an impossible job. How do educators and researchers alike work to dispel this myth and in turn encourage highly qualified educators to aspire to this vitally important role in our society?

Stress Factors
The answer is simple: Understand those aspects of the superintendency that can affect stress and job performance. Of course, finding this solution is more complex and seems to elude the current interest of researchers.

Using an ecological perspective to view the superintendency promotes a better understanding of how individuals today are affected by today's educational environment and helps to dispel some myths about the superintendency being an impossible job.

The framework for administrative ecology is based on the findings of research by one of us (McGarity) on the impact of personal, professional and organizational characteristics of stress for superintendents in 11 southeastern states. The research included personal interviews with superintendents in each of the states along with instruments sent to all superintendents, board chairs and selected principals in the same region, along with an extensive literature review.

Ecology is the scientific study of the interactions between organisms and their environment derived from the Greek oikos (home) and logos (to study). Recent views of the administrator's position in education have focused on external directives established by state and federal mandates backed by social pressures. This leaves behind the classical organizational, human relations and behavioral science approaches to administrative practices and places an emphasis on the environment that surrounds the organization as the driving force behind education.

The upheaval of social justice and accountability within educational organizations has changed the way administrators view positions of leadership. In response, researchers and practitioners alike have searched for a more composite understanding of how to approach educational administration. These important societal positions operate within the confines of personal and professional factors. However, they are subject to the constraints and limitations of the organizational environment — hence the concept of administrative ecology.

Positions in educational administration often are compared to corporate leadership roles in that there must be a focus on the end product and on customer satisfaction. Ultimately the satisfaction of a corporation is determined by monetary returns while success in an education organization is determined by community perception. Therefore school administrators are constantly faced with a subjective value of success.

This subjective view represents the environmental constructs the administrator must navigate to survive. Based on modern views of organizations and leadership, administrative ecology can be divided into four increasingly comprehensive levels of study: personal, professional, district (organizational) and community ecology.

Personal Ecology
Personal ecology is concerned with the administrator as an individual. This ecological aspect includes the physical, physiological and behavioral characteristics the administrator possesses as an individual. Examples of a superintendentÕs personal ecology include race, gender, local or cosmopolitan commitments, leadership style and interpersonal skills, such as communication, flexibility, patience, charisma, emotional intelligence and financial interest.

Ronnie Meador, director of schools in Robertson County, Tenn., used the term "chameleon" in regards to communicating with a diversity of school district shareholders. To be an effective leader one must be able to relate to all interest groups within the school district. Illustrating the chameleon concept of communication, he described talking with a farmer in a field along the edge of his district and later that same day speaking with a lawyer in a nice downtown office.

"To be effective you have to be able to recognize and appreciate the differences in people and then adapt your communication style to fit the situation," Meador says.
Within the select superintendent interview pool, patience was the characteristic that exhibited the highest consensus among superintendents in our study. Patience was noted in 10 of the 11 conversations as a trait having the potential to affect levels of stress. However, this is not a characteristic found within current research literature dealing with the relationship between the superintendency and stress.

Leon Cubillas, superintendent of the Splendora, Texas, Independent School District, spoke of the power of patience when dealing with stressful issues, such as the politics over annexation between the neighboring city of Houston and his school district. "Patience is all about waiting, without making hasty decisions, for the right time to take action," he says.

Interestingly, the female superintendents interviewed for this study related patience with tolerance as they deal with difficult issues. Based on everyday experiences in the superintendency, Kim Stasny, superintendent of the Bay St. Louis Waveland School District in Bay St. Louis, Miss., believes tolerance is the ability to withstand the initial force and complexity of a problem without making a rash decision. The personal ecology of the administrator resides at the core of how each of the other aspects of administrator ecology will shape the leader as he or she meets the job's challenges.

Professional Ecology
Professional ecology concentrates on administrative factors that directly involve the position. Professional characteristics include the years of experience in each education position and leadership role, educational preparation and training, retirement and personal financial autonomy relating to the profession, time commitments to the organization, accessibility, personnel decision-making ability, state and federal mandate awareness, collaborative or empowering decision-making use and job satisfaction.

As chief executive of one of the nation's largest school districts, Pughsley, superintendent of North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg system, placed great emphasis on experience as a factor affecting stress levels. Ten of the 11 superintendents interviewed reported experience as a stress determinate.

"Having experience working in a large school district before coming to Charlotte gave me the needed understanding of how to handle the media and high-stakes testing expectations," says Pughsley, who acknowledged his experience in negotiations outside education also made a difference in how he handled district funding matters.

Financial autonomy refers to the superintendent's ability to leave his or her position without concern for personal finances. Pughsley says when you are financially independent and realize you are able to walk away from your position without worrying about your income, "you eliminate most of your stress dealing with board differences."

A Virginia superintendent emphasized a high level of financial savvy as a means to better communicate with school board members. "The stress of dealing with financial issues diminishes when you are confident enough to know that whatever is being spent by the district is getting the maximum benefit for the cost," he says.

One aspect of the superintendency that has received little attention in the literature, although regarded as a highly touted anecdote of stress for superintendents in the study's sample, is the superintendent's perceived accessibility. Accessibility can be measured by how open one's "open-door" policy really is to the board, employees, parents and community members, regardless of the time of day.

Eight of the 11 superintendents interviewed noted the potential for stress-related issues stemming from the willingness to respond to members of the district immediately through some form of communication. On one continuum, as a superintendent becomes more willing to communicate with district constituents, she or he must handle unexpected issues that detract from time scheduled for other tasks.

"My first line of accessibility starts with a rapid response to e-mail inquiries. Responding to e-mails in a timely manner lets the community member know that you care and you are listening, which is sometimes all they need ... someone to listen to their problems," says Gayle Sloan, superintendent in St. Tammany Parish, La. Judy Forbes, superintendent in Habersham County, Ga., described her accessibility as being "approachable and available to anyone."

Administrators distend and mold these aspects according to their needs. The dynamic interaction between personal and professional ecology plays a significant role in the distribution of administrators in educational systems. For example, an administrator with a personal attachment to local affairs would be more apt to find a position in a rural school district, while an educator with a more cosmopolitan outlook and a willingness to relocate would likely be attracted to an urban or suburban school system.

James Flynn, first-year superintendent of the Simpson County, Ky., School District, says: "When you're young and in your first year as a superintendent, you want to meet with everyone in one day going from one place to another ... . In fact, I have another meeting in town in the next 15 minutes after I speak with you ... but you soon learn to prioritize."

Besides empirical studies on time constraints within the superintendency, accessibility has yet to gain attention for superintendent stress research. The implications of varying superintendent accessibility levels as a contributing factor to stress among superintendents demonstrates a need for further investigation.

Personnel decisions can create havoc in terms of stress, threatening a superintendentÕs tenure. Superintendents must handle four types of personnel decisions that typically can cause elevated stress: teacher nonrenewals, classified and nonclassified employee dismissals, administrative changes and coaching changes in football and basketball.

"The longer a superintendent remains in a school district the more baggage is accumulated from tough personnel decisions," says Stasny. Yet plenty of superintendents have found a means to keep these decisions in perspective. "Keeping students as the main focus makes a big difference in dealing with dismissal decisions," says Lynn Smith, superintendent of Brewton, Ala., City Schools.

Organizational Ecology
District ecology refers to factors that superintendents have limited control over. A few examples of these characteristics include school demographics, method of superintendent and board selection (elected or appointed), number of board members, number of new board members, state ratings for academic achievement, collective bargaining process, salary and fringe benefits, board relations and financial wellness of the district. The district ecology includes the whole array of interactions between the superintendent and prevailing conditions in the school district.

Meador, who heads the school system in Robertson County, Tenn., says: "I have not experienced hardship with collective bargaining, but I have heard some horror stories from other superintendents." Sloan, superintendent in St. Tammany Parish, La., mentioned that one of the most stressful aspects of collective bargaining arises when each interest group has a separate representative demanding equal attention.

The Habersham County, Ga., school board and Forbes, the superintendent, are working in a partnership directed by the Aspen Group. This consulting firm provides school districts with clearly defined governing processes, board/CEO relationship expectations and executive limitations to develop a productive relationship. This concentrated effort to promote collaboration between these governing bodies reflects a desire to thwart the detrimental effects of adverse organizational relationships on district stability.

Community Ecology
Looking beyond the three traditional views of the superintendency and educational administration is the recent public demand for accountability for the success of all students enrolled in the school district.

Community ecology encompasses the entire district network by integrating the community's perceptions of the superintendent's effectiveness in raising student achievement with the various characteristics of the superintendent's personal, professional and district ecology. Community characteristics are concentrated around the level of interest in specific areas of the district, such as student achievement, curriculum, athletics, accreditation, mastery of state and federal mandates and ethnic and socioeconomic equality.

At the forefront of community ecology are characteristics endemic to the district's effectiveness in meeting NCLB standards and state school rankings as they relate to district and school report cards. Stasny says the success of the school district has a two-pronged effect of the economics of the community.

First, she notes the influx of calls to her school district from real estate agents inquiring about the performance and particular programs in schools. "Community ecology and the district perception can affect the willingness of parents to move into a school district," she says.
Second, she says communitywide organizations — in her case, a group such as the Port and Harbor Commission in Bay St. Louis, Miss. — request information on the successes of the school district, which can have a significant bearing on the decisions of companies to relocate in the district. "The combination of the community ecology and the perception of district success have a tremendous impact on the district's economic growth" says Stasny.

Perception and Communication
Pughsley, who led the 110,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., system for three years, describes his role in communication as a facilitator between different interest groups in the community. "With such a large, spread-out district, I have to recognize each community pocket within the district and understand the relationship each pocket has with each other," he says.

John Rodgers, superintendent of the Santa Rosa, Fla., School District, points to the importance of communication by a different means. Through communication, a superintendent needs to be able to unify both employees and community members. "Displaying sensitivity to all faculty and staff members, from bus drivers to teachers, and the ability to understand backgrounds of all district cultures, from those living on the coast to those living inland, communicates a sense of unity," he explains.

Today more than ever before, administrators must address public perceptions, which often serve as the driving force behind change in a school district. As states, districts and communities place a tremendous emphasis on student test scores, subgroup performances and school rankings, administrators must accept challenges from the community that do not necessarily pertain directly to the district or school environment. They must expand their understanding of the district or school climate to include community perception.

The public has been given the capacity to make comparisons of academic performance for districts and schools through publicized test scores and statewide rankings. This enables parents to push even harder on educators to provide their children with the best education possible. As such, those in school administration now must consider the effects of public perception and the importance this factor has for educational success and, inevitably, job security of the individual at the top.

Mike Ward, the former North Carolina superintendent of public instruction, describes the impact of a data-driven community by comparing the resources used to make decisions by economic developers in the early days and today.

"Economic developers would use SAT scores and the response of the current superintendent to specific questions to make decisions, but today they have a vast array of sophisticated statistical data to evaluate the work force," Ward says. "Overall, the quality of schools has increased and there is an improved perception of public schools through the use of data-driven decisions. However, many communities tend to make generalizations about test data to focus on the performance of particular schools, in turn causing headaches for administrators."

Successful school district leaders realize that communication is the key to create an equilibrium between the organization and the community. Training superintendents and administrators about the pitfalls associated with community perception of school success will help provide relief for the occupational stress and may aid administrator recruitment. For today's administrator, perception is the question, but communication is the means of interaction between all four facets of administrative ecology.

Augustus McGarity is an assistant professor of educational leadership and research at the University of Southern Mississippi, 118 College Drive, Hattiesburg, MS 39406. E-mail: augustus.mcgarity@usm.edu. Wanda Maulding is the associate dean in the College of Education and Psychology at University of Southern Mississippi. Kim Stasny, superintendent of the Bay St. Louis Waveland School District in Bay St. Louis, Miss., contributed to this article.