Two Cases of Broken Wings

by George Goens

Many of us know broken-wing superintendents. It is a difficult situation. It is particularly hard for any leader who takes the high road, makes decisions in the best interests of children and stands on principle against actions that are less than noble and forthright.

The two examples below describe real circumstances of capable superintendents who hit the glass wall and broke a wing. Each became a player, not a victim or complainer. Both have gone on with their careers in educational leadership. Bill and Janice are pseudonyms, but their stories are based on actual events.

A Residency Dispute

Bill resigned from his superintendency in a New England school district of 1,850 students on principle. The seven-member school board decided to enforce a residency requirement for the superintendent two years into his three-year contract after waiving the requirement he live in the school district at the time of his hiring.

The school district was trying to pass a bond referendum to improve the facilities at the same time. The controversy over his residency of the superintendent was getting in the way of educating the community about the facility needs.

Bill publicly informed the school board that he intended to resign at the end of the year to remove the controversy over his residency and to enable the district to focus on the need for new and renovated schools. He thought his conflict with the board over his residency distracted citizens from the larger issue of classroom needs.

Bill resigned, and the referendum passed. At the end of the school year he began an 18-month odyssey to find another superintendency. The path was difficult at times, but it led eventually to a successful end. Without holding an executive position while he searched, Bill worked with a superintendent search firm to present himself honestly and candidly about his situation, polished his resume, obtained a short-term position with a regional educational agency and honed his interviewing skills by getting assistance from a professional firm. Most importantly, he persevered courageously and professionally.

Undermined Authority

Janice was a noted superintendent in the Southwest who developed a highly recognized and capable administrative team. She brought about some much needed changes to a largely successful but complacent suburban school district of 3,000 students.

During a board election, however, a powerful and politically connected woman in the community got elected. She scheduled a lunch with Janice soon after assuming office, at which time she asked for preference for a friend in the hiring process for a coordinator’s position. Janice informed her that no political favoritism was going to take place and that it was inappropriate for her to ask for political or personal favors.

Incensed, the new board member then worked to undermine Janice in the community and among other political leaders during the following year. She gained a few allies, which compromised Janice’s effectiveness and eventually led her to accept a contract buyout.

The school board’s attorney, who negotiated the buyout agreement, was willing to talk to prospective employers about Janice’s excellent work record, her credibility and competence. He explained the context and circumstances and the fact that the buyout did not stem from her ability, record or integrity. The strong recommendation and her upfront, professional candor helped Janice obtain another position in the superintendency.