Elusive Solution: Living Outside Your District

by Kate Beem

The simplest way for superintendents to shield their children from the pitfalls of the job is to live outside the district where they work. But that’s easier said than done in some cases.

Superintendents are viewed as vital community boosters, so school district patrons often expect them to embrace every aspect of their school districts—from living there to shopping and paying taxes there.

Indeed, the school boards of many major cities require superintendents to live within the city borders or within a close proximity of their districts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Dayton, Ohio, the board requires all administrators at or above the level of an assistant principal to reside within the boundaries of the school district.

The trend, however, seems to be toward relaxing residency requirements. A survey of school superintendents in New York, conducted by the New York State Council of School Superintendents, found that about a third of upstate superintendents and two-thirds of those on Long Island do not live within their school districts. And only 13 percent of New York superintendents with school-aged children live in the district where they work.

The National School Boards Association takes no stance and contends the issue hasn’t been a particularly visible one among the group’s members, says Karla Schultz, an NSBA policy analyst.

“Boards are going to adapt that to whatever their local circumstances are.”

In 1999, Michigan passed legislation that eased residency requirements. The law prohibited school boards from mandating that superintendents live within the district where they’re employed, although boards may stipulate that superintendents live within a 20-mile range of the district.

The Michigan School Boards Association opposed this change, which came about because of pressure from other public employee groups. The association considered it a matter of local control, says Brad Banasik, the MSBA general counsel. “That’s not to say most districts want their superintendents to live in the district, but they do want them to be a part of the community,” he adds.

Constant Grumblings

But feeling a part of a place isn’t necessarily incumbent upon living there, says Jim Rosborg, superintendent of the 3,700-student Belleville School District in the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Ill.

Until his oldest child was approaching high school, Rosborg, his wife and three children lived within the Belleville School District. But as his children grew older, Rosborg got a glimpse of the hardships they might endure because their father was a highly visible district administrator. His older son made the junior high basketball team amid constant grumblings that he was playing only because Rosborg had coached in the district previously.

At that point, after 13 years teaching in the district, Rosborg was an assistant superintendent. He didn’t want to leave his job, but he also didn’t want his children to suffer. “I pretty much decided that I didn’t want the kids to have to go through that,” he says.

So with his school board’s blessing, Rosborg moved to the neighboring Freeburg district, buying property within 11 minutes’ driving distance of his office. He relishes the freedom of living outside his district but remains deeply involved in the Belleville community, serving on various committees and the Chamber of Commerce board, he says.

“I spend most of my life in the district,” says Rosborg, 54, whose three children now are in their 20s. “I just don’t happen to sleep in the district.”

A Happier Son

The importance of maintaining involvement in the district that employs you can’t be underscored enough, agreed Ralph Marshall, 53, superintendent of the 1,800-student Hononegah Community High School District in Rockton, Ill., north of Chicago.

Marshall and his wife decided four years ago to move back to a district where they’d lived previously to shelter their youngest child from the fallout from tough teacher contract negotiations, which eventually led to a strike. Although he couldn’t prove anything, Marshall was sure that some teachers were taking out their frustrations on his son. So with his school board’s approval, Marshall moved his family two hours south to the 825-student Leroy School District near Bloomington, Ill. But Marshall stayed behind, commuting mostly on weekends to see his family.

He spends much of his time in the Hononegah district, he says, to remain effective. He’s active in the local chamber and the Rotary club. It’s a hardship on him personally: Visiting his family means spending hours in the car, listening to books on tape. But it’s a trade-off he’s willing to accept for the sake of his child’s happiness, Marshall says.