Features

Interim Principalships

Filling an 11th-hour need to buy time for a permanent successor by Kate Beem
Eduardo Carballo was in a tight spot. It was two weeks before the start of the current school year, and Carballo, superintendent of the 7,300-student Holyoke, Mass., School District, needed an elementary school principal.


He’d followed the protocol, conducting an exhaustive national search, narrowing a field of 17 candidates to one. She’d shown up for work for just a week or so before telling Carballo she’d changed her mind and departed.

So there was Carballo, left holding the ball and desperate for an instructional leader to run Dr. Marcella R. Kelly Elementary School, a school that had seen six principals in a decade.

To solve his dilemma, Carballo embraced a remedy being used increasingly in school districts across the country: He hired an interim.

``I felt like a coach with players on the bench,’‘ Carballo says. ``Who am I going to put in there right now? Where are you going to go two weeks before school starts and find somebody to put in there?”

Common Turnover
Many of Carballo’s counterparts from coast to coast can empathize with his position. Some superintendents and school boards are grappling with a teacher shortage and enrollment boom even as they’re facing a dearth of educators with an ambition to become school leaders. The Chicago Public Schools, for example, began the 2002-2003 school year with about 43 interim principals and another 154 principals with contracts set to expire at year’s end.

A report by the Educational Research Service estimates that 40 percent of the country’s principals will retire over the next 10 years. And when those charged with hiring their successors look down the pike, they don’t see qualified replacements queuing up to take their places.

Often, convincing standout instructors to leave the classroom for the main office can be frustrating and fruitless. Pair that reality with the impending retirements and you’ve got yourself a significant gap between principal supply and demand—a phenomenon now confronting rural, suburban and urban districts. That’s why 60 percent of the 853 superintendents surveyed in 2001 for the Public Agenda report “Trying to Stay Ahead of the Game” said they expect to lower their professional standards when faced with filling an open principal position.

But that doesn’t have to be the case, Carballo says. Using interim principals can buy superintendents time to find a more fitting candidate. Or, as in Carballo’s case, the interim might just be the one with the glass slipper.

A 4th-grade teacher turned middle school assistant principal who was completing her doctorate in education policy research and administration, Linda Carrier had helped resuscitate an ailing Holyoke middle school.

Carballo liked her drive and enthusiasm, so he asked her to step in to the top spot at Dr. Marcella R. Kelly Elementary, a building with 490 students and one of the lowest-performing schools in the district located 50 miles west of Boston.

Carrier agreed to a year, but she embraced the school as if she’d never leave. By January parent involvement had increased, and the school’s curriculum was being overhauled. Carrier had become a favorite among staff and families alike. When Carballo asked Carrier to stay permanently, she said ``yes.”

``Everybody thought she was the greatest thing,” Carballo says. ``I think she’ll turn that school around.”

Carballo was taking a chance even appointing an interim for Kelly Elementary. The last interim there, appointed before Carballo began his superintendency in December 2001, had stayed two years. Carballo thought that was too long. But he did need someone who would commit to a year, giving him a chance to look for principal candidates during the winter and spring hiring seasons.

Even as the interim principal, Carrier began to effect change. She instituted a schoolwide leadership team, a data-driven school improvement plan and new literacy and math curricula. When Carrier arrived at the school, the staff made their expectations clear, she says.

``The teachers wanted someone to stay with them and see it through,” Carrier says. ``I never felt like I wasn’t the principal.’‘

An Unappealing Role
Although scant research exists documenting the increasing use of interim principals, anecdotal evidence abounds.

``I think there is a trend, but the trend is based on the difficulties in finding principals,” explains Milli Pierce, director of The Principals’ Center at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. ``Most districts have the best intentions. The reason they use interims is so they don’t rush to use the wrong person.”

Factors contributing to the principal shortage are varied. For starters, more principals are reaching retirement age, according to a staffing survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. And many aspects of the job—the long hours, the grueling pace, the relatively small pay differential between the principal and veteran teachers—aren’t enticing enough educators to leave the classroom.

But over the last few decades of school reform, the role of the principal has changed. They are no longer just their buildings’ instructional leaders. They’re social workers, one-person human resources departments and budget officers. They must wade through labyrinthine federal rules, answer the demands of students with wide-ranging social problems and cater to the needs of their staffs and the schools’ families.

Yet one fact of the principal’s job hasn’t changed. Principals still are held accountable for their schools’ successes or failures; in fact their compensation can be directly affected. Twelve percent of the more than 1,400 middle-school principals surveyed in 2000 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals reported their salaries were linked to school performance.

So superintendents and school boards are loathe to quickly hire any warm body with a principal’s certificate to permanently fill open positions. Often, too, district leaders don’t want to temporarily use someone from within the district ranks. Such situations sometimes cause their own set of troubles, Pierce says. If a faculty member is elevated to interim principal, he or she might find it difficult overseeing those who were peers just days before. And keeping a building staff on task can be the most frustrating part of any interim principalship, Carballo says.

``It’s kind of like substitute teaching,” he says. ``I think that’s probably the most difficult thing with an interim person.”

Retirees Return
Sometimes the best solution to finding a qualified interim principal quickly lies in the ranks of the retired. In districts large and small, rural and urban, retired superintendents, central-office administrators and principals often return to schools to keep the buildings running while the search for a permanent placement goes on.

When Bernie Pelc retired as superintendent from the Fulton School District in Middleton, Mich., in 1995, he wasn’t ready to quit working. But he also didn’t want to continue indefinitely as a school superintendent. Pelc quickly realized he wasn’t alone.

``A lot of experienced administrators were retiring as early as 50 years old,” Pelc said. ``A lot of educational experience and knowledge was walking out the door.”

Pelc and his partner, James McKimmey, retired superintendent from the Midland County Intermediate School District in Midland, Mich., saw a business opportunity in their newfound freedom. They knew from experience that school districts often needed veteran administrators to fill in when vacancies occurred. But the two weren’t sure how best to meet that need with the cadre of retirees they knew existed. As in many other states, Michigan law prohibits those who’ve retired from the state’s public school system to work for a school district and maintain their pensions.

Pelc’s company, Professional Contract Management Inc., manages that problem this way: School districts hire the company to fill interim positions ranging from assistant principals to curriculum specialists. PCMI hires the educators and leases them back to the districts, which have ultimate say over which interim candidates get placed.

It’s an ultimate savings for the school district, which isn’t responsible for providing health insurance or state retirement—costs that are borne by PCMI. Districts pay PCMI their going per-diem rate, which varies greatly around the state, Pelc says. PCMI pays its employees a salary.

``It’s a win-win-win-win-win all the way down the line,” Pelc adds.

PCMI got off the ground slowly, winning seven contracts over two years. But now the company maintains a database of 225 job candidates and employs about 40 people on any given day within Michigan’s schools.

The Illinois Association of School Administrators was thinking along the same lines as Pelc when it began its Interim Superintendent/Consultant Service Corps some years back. The corps provides a matchmaking service for districts searching for interim leaders of all types and retired administrators willing to sign on to help. Almost 800 of the state’s 892 school districts subscribe to an online job bank that’s free for job-seekers, who merely post their resumes.

When a match is made, it can be heavenly for both parties, says Walt Warfield, the association’s executive director. Warfield recommends that school boards convert the salary of the person being replaced to a per-diem rate and compensate interims that way (although pay generally is worked out between the job candidate and the district).

``Retired people don’t need the fringe benefits,” Warfield says. ``They’re just looking for a little extra money.”

And maybe a little mental stimulation, too. Illinois retirees from the public school system can’t work more than 120 days without compromising their pensions. Most work that much or less, with a few sharing interim assignments, Warfield says.

A Second Career
Hank Boer of Streator, Ill., has been an interim administrator seven times in the last seven years. He was 52 when he retired in 1996 as superintendent of the Streator Township High School District, a north-central Illinois district with about 1,000 students. Although most of his interim assignments involved superintendencies, earlier this year he assumed a combined superintendent/principal position, something he vowed he’d never do.

``When you wear two hats as principal and superintendent, it’s difficult to do both well,” says Boer, who also is an instructor at Aurora University in suburban Chicago.

Boer, however, has used retirement to take on professional challenges, and running the 195-student Hampton Elementary School District in Hampton, Ill., certainly is that, he says. As interim superintendent, he has to keep the district running; as interim principal, he has to keep the building operating. That includes refereeing fights, dealing with discipline problems on the school bus and keeping teachers working as a team.

``It’s more difficult to be a principal than it is to be a superintendent,” Boer says.

But the temporariness of the assignment can be good for him and the district, he says. A politically neutral interim will be left alone by employee unions, the news media, parents and, often, the school board. At the same time, an interim with experience often can get by with implementing changes that would meet resistance coming from a permanent leader, Boer says.

``I’m not there to develop a career,” he says. ``I’m there to help everyone get back the direction of the school.”

Accepting the interim assignment in Hampton meant Boer lived five days a week in a motel. But that sort of travel doesn’t appeal to other retirees. Most retired superintendents, such as Joe Fusco of Queensbury, N.Y., don’t mind filling in temporarily as long as the job doesn’t disrupt his personal life too much. Fusco retired in 1997 as superintendent of the 2,000-student Ilion Central School District in central New York, and he and his wife moved to Queensbury, a town on the fringes of the Adirondack Park in upstate New York.

Fusco connected with his interim assignments through the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex Board of Cooperative Educational Services, an agency that coordinates programs for school districts through a wide swath of the upstate region. Fusco since has served as an interim three times: as a superintendent and assistant principal in the 3,000-student Greenwich, N.Y., School District and as an elementary principal in the 1,300-student Glen Falls, N.Y., School District. Both jobs were within 30 miles of his home and lasted only a few months. Fusco wouldn’t want it any other way.

``I’ve turned down as many as I’ve done,’‘ Fusco says. ``I really don’t want to work any more. I enjoy my retired lifestyle.”

After 35 years in education, Fusco doesn’t relish the long hours and late nights that accompany work as a school administrator. He considers attending board meetings and community events the least appealing aspects of the job.

Yet it’s hard to say no to the money an interim assignment brings. As an interim superintendent, Fusco made $325 daily, with $25 daily in travel expenses. His elementary principal job brought him between $275 and $300 a day. And for that, he can put up with a few months of administrative hassles, keeping things going until a school board can find the right person for the long term.

Extended Stints
That’s how Pat Dolan feels, too. His first interim principal job occurred during the 2001-2002 school year, when he stepped into the head job at G. Ray Bodley High School in Fulton, N.Y. Although Dolan hadn’t filled an administrative position since leaving the superintendency of the 1,200-student Onondaga Central Schools near Syracuse, N.Y., he was happy to step in to the job at Bodley. There he helped out one of his former students—who had been the school’s principal—when she took a leave of absence to battle cancer.

Then last September, Dolan stepped into the interim principalship at Oswego High School in the 5,100-student Oswego City School District on the shores of Lake Ontario. The school was about a half-hour from Dolan’s home in Baldwinsville, N.Y.—about as far away as he wants to roam for an interim job. And though he agreed to fill the position only from September through November, the job stretched almost to March when the school board couldn’t find a candidate it wanted permanently, Dolan says.

He quickly realized during his two interim stints that staying beyond a few months made it difficult to leave. ``In the short term, people think of you as a substitute,” Dolan says. ``They don’t take problems to you.”

That changes the longer an interim stays, he discovered, which makes it difficult to maintain the status quo until a permanent leader takes over.

But more often, interim appointments are lengthening, says Bill Silky, a professor of educational administration at the State University of New York at Oswego. Silky sees interim appointments such as Dolan’s latest running far longer than districts promised because of the difficulty in finding qualified candidates. It’s not unusual for districts to conduct a national search for a principal and come away unsatisfied with the candidate pool.

``Or they wait for the peak hiring time, hoping for better success,’‘ Silky says.

A Hiring Edge
School districts walk a fine line when they use interims to weather the storm left by an administrator vacancy, Silky says. Interim employees from outside a district, no matter how experienced they are, face a steep learning curve they must climb in a relatively short period of time. Typically they are not expected to make significant changes, just keep the school running smoothly and safely. Meanwhile, district administrators are buying time to find an appropriate permanent replacement who can do more than maintain the status quo. So interim appointments by definition should be short to bridge the gap between old and new.

``And you really don’t want that gap to be that wide,” Silky says.

In Holyoke, Mass., Eduardo Carballo found seven acting principals when he took over the district. And for that, Carballo was grateful to his immediate successor, Holyoke’s interim superintendent. The non-permanent appointments at the building level gave Carballo the chance to hire administrators who shared his philosophy.

During his first 18 months at Holyoke, Carballo appointed six new principals, which is allowing him to move forward with reforms that better serve disadvantaged students. That said, he isn’t afraid to use interims in the short term. Indeed, the judicious use of interim principals, such as hiring Linda Carrier at Dr. Marcella R. Kelly Elementary, can be golden.

``For me, it was key in many instances,’‘ Carballo says.

Kate Beem is a free-lance education writer in Independence, Mo. E-mail: ksbeem@comcast.net.