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Senior Citizen Superintendents

Symbols of a new age: Working at 70 and beyond by JAY MATHEWS

The bond referendum for a new elementary school produced the usual flurry of protests. Residents without school-age children worried it would severely inflate their tax bills. The community organization opposing the bond issue distributed flyers the weekend before the election suggesting some people could lose their homes. Spokespersons for both sides debated the issue vigorously one evening at the Methodist church.


But Burdette W. Andrews, 44, the energetic and determined school superintendent, stuck to his message, buttressed with charts and graphs. The population of his district, Vandercook Lake, Mich., was increasing rapidly and the voters had to be responsible for the education of the children. In the end, his side won and the school was built.

It sounds like a typical bond issue dispute in a typical American town, just like many in recent years of tax debates and deficits. Yet it happened a half century ago, and Andrews’s successful conduct of the campaign to improve his schools worked so well that he has remained on the job ever since, retiring (if that is what you want to call it) only this year when he reached the age of 94.

Andrews’s 56 years as superintendent in Vandercook Lake—that doesn’t count his five previous years as superintendent of two neighboring districts—probably set a record for longevity. People who know him say it is a remarkable testament to his devotion to his job and his robust health. Many school administrators young enough to be his children already yearn to stay home at night and spend their mornings on the golf course.


Growing Older
But he is not alone. Being a school superintendent, surveys indicate, is more difficult than ever, with school boards becoming more restless and federal and state governments imposing more requirements for things like improved test scores and expanded social services. Yet many older superintendents are showing that enjoyment of their work, deep knowledge of their districts and modern medical care is keeping them energetic and productive far beyond the usual retirement age.

“Once you get in there and get established, the days go by and then the years go by,” says Bruce S. Cooper, associate professor of education at Fordham University and lead author of a 2000 AASA study, “Career Crisis in the School Superintendency.”

Andrews in Vandercook Lake is an extreme but intriguing symbol of a new age of increasingly older superintendents who are willing to take on the challenge. The demands of running a modern school district appear to have increased, not reduced, the portion of superintendents in their 50s and older.

The School Administrator identified about a dozen superintendents at least 70 years of age who continue to practice on a full- or part-time basis. Not all were anxious, however, to discuss their senior citizen status, including a female superintendent in California who is 81.

AASA’s Study of the American School Superintendency 2000 by Thomas E. Glass, Lars Bjork and C. Cryss Brunner revealed that in the largest districts (those with 25,000 or more students), the portion of superintendents aged 55 or above increased from 35.5 percent in 1971 to 49.5 percent in 2000.

A 1923 survey by AASA found the median age of superintendents to be 43.1, but that has jumped up since. During most of the past half-century, the median age of superintendents hovered around 48 or 50. “Since 1992, however, the median age of superintendents increased to 52.5, the oldest recorded median age during the 20th century,” the study said.

The latest AASA study showed increases over the last 20 years in the number of superintendents aged 60 and older in school districts of all sizes. In the largest districts, nearly 16 percent of superintendents were over 60 in 2000 compared to 10 percent a decade earlier. Among school districts with fewer than 300 students, the percentage of superintendents over the age of 60 increased from 5 percent to nearly 9 percent.

Although research so far cannot explain the rise in the age of superintendents, experts offer several possible reasons. School superintendents are more likely to be trained professionals with doctorates in administration who see themselves developing careers rather than just filling a job and building up Social Security credits for retirement. Also, experts say, the talented administrators most likely to become superintendents are waiting longer to take those big jobs.

“A lot of principals or central-office administrators are reluctant to take on superintendencies until pretty late in their careers,” says Glass, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Memphis.

With the job so heavily politicized, and the potential of an unhappy ending so high, many administrators prefer to leap into that cauldron when their children are grown and their retirement plans in good shape so they don’t have to worry so much about their next job.

Also, Glass says, the growing number of female superintendents seems to be raising the average age. “They stay longer in the classroom and they have children, so they are likely to be older when they have a chance to be superintendents,” he says.

Cooper at Fordham says there is a general tendency toward top administrators staying longer in their districts and having less mobility. It grows from the likelihood they have spouses with good jobs in the community and don’t like the financial and emotional costs of moving. Superintendents are more likely to stay with their jobs, even past retirement, and school boards are more likely to stick with the superintendent they have.

“They are less likely to fire the superintendent because they fear they cannot get a replacement,” Cooper says.


Board Desire
Superintendents may be more professional and career oriented, but the number of educators choosing to serve on the highest rung of school system administration does not appear to be on an upswing. Some see being a superintendent as too hard a job with too few rewards. “In some cases they have not been able to find people to take our place,” says Harrell Holder, superintendent of the Pecos, N.M., Independent School District. “It is just not appealing to a lot of people.”

At 70, Holder has worked as a superintendent for 39 years in seven districts. He has promised to stay at least two years more in Pecos, a district of 820 students.

The growing complexity of the job has led school boards to put even more value on experience. The older candidate with a longer resume often has an advantage when a board is hiring a new superintendent. And long-serving superintendents with good records are likely to be urged to delay retirement.

That was certainly the case in Vandercook Lake, where Andrews developed deep ties to the community, worked well with a succession of more than 50 school board members and never even came close to losing a bond referendum vote after that first close call in the early 1950s. If it were not for a few health problems, he says, he would have remained superintendent even longer than his record 56 years. And he is not really changing his routine much, for he will continue to have an office at school headquarters in the Jackson County, Mich., community and make himself useful to his successor, he says.

The district is small but prospering with 1,200 students. It is located in a middle-class suburban area full of parents with jobs connected to the automobile industry. Under Michigan’s school choice program, 340 of those students have decided to attend school in Vandercook Lake even though they live outside the district, a fact that Andrews is proud of. “There are 11 school districts represented in that group that have sent their children here for better schooling,” he says.


Outlasting Adversity
Pride in doing a good job and a sense of being needed were cited by several older superintendents as reasons for staying. “I need some challenges and need to be doing something,” says Charles I. Ecker, 73, superintendent for the Carroll County, Md., schools. “I have worked all my life, was born on a small farm and started milking cows, slopping the pigs, feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, etc., at a very early age. I really enjoy working.”

Ecker was a long-time associate superintendent in Howard County, Md., and then won election to two terms as the county executive. He ran for governor, lost and retired. That seemed to be the end of his lengthy career in public service until Carroll County, located just west of Baltimore, asked him to take over the 28,000-student school system. It was in so much financial trouble at the time that a grand jury had begun to investigate.

“Doing any job is difficult,” Ecker says. “The secret is surrounding yourself with good people, let them do their job and keep out of the way.”

Adversity can also keep an older superintendent going. Charlie Mae Knight, the 70-year-old superintendent of the Ravenswood City School District on the San Francisco Peninsula, was acquitted last year in a jury trial of 19 counts of felony conflict-of-interest. She was accused of approving $29,200 in district-backed loans to tenants and other district employees who owed her money, but community members rallied to her cause. She emerged victorious with a contract that keeps her in office until 2004.

Knight says she was glad still to be at work, fighting the gross inequalities of funding that she believes have kept her low-income district of 5,300 students from helping children as much as it should. And, she says, being past retirement age, able to leave the job any time she likes, has fortified her for the political battles ahead.

“When I was 25 I didn’t know I could take on these people,” she says. “When I was 45 and with kids in college I knew I couldn’t afford to take on these people. But in my situation now, what are my excuses?”


Irresistible Urge
Good body chemistry and good genes have a lot to do with the successes of older administrators. Gene Cosby, 71, the superintendent of the Hastings, Neb., district with 3,200 students, says “some people are old at 60 and some are not old past 80. I am blessed with good health and a lot of energy.”

Not only does he like to keep busy at this office but he and his wife, in her early 60s, have two adopted children ages 8 and 9. “I just feel like I have something to give,” Cosby says.

Holder, the district leader in Pecos, N.M., has retired three times but has been unable to resist the temptation of another job offer. “I still enjoy working, compared to the alternatives,” he says.

Before coming to Pecos, he was the superintendent in a southern New Mexico district where he managed to create a high-level technology program. “We were picking up the Internet in all the classrooms,” he says.

So when Pecos, a small three-building district just outside Santa Fe, went looking for a superintendent that could make it a technology leader, Holder could not resist taking the job. Now he has a school system “where you can go out on the track or the baseball field and open up your laptop and connect to the Internet,” he says.


Part-Time Profession

For those administrators past retirement who want just a fraction of the action, some small districts are happy to hire part-time leaders. It means interesting work and yet not so many hours that it might affect a pension. Anthony Perrelli, the part-time superintendent for the 370-student Voluntown, Conn., district since 1995, is 74 but says he still loves the work and the challenge, noting, “You can be your own man and be true to your philosophy of education.”

In Vandercook Lake, Andrews has a somewhat simpler view of the meaning of his job. He is a well-dressed man with white hair, big glasses and an old-fashioned work ethic. When superintendents of the baby boom generation are asked what motivates them to stick with their jobs, they talk about the satisfaction of improving achievement, of reforming old structures, of feeding their need to make a difference. They are modern administrators who need a reason to be engaged in their work, or why bother?

Andrews’s answer to the question of why he works comes from a much earlier era: “It’s my duty, the obligations that I have, the desire to do the job and do it right. … What makes me happy? I never gave it much thought. I just had a job to be done and I did it.”

In an interview with Education Week in 2000, Andrews walked briskly into a restaurant in Jackson, the city of 38,000 near Vandercook Lake, and said to the writer: “Did you expect to find someone carrying a cane?”

When he was asked at the time when he planned to retire, the superintendent answered with a poem:

“I know by then I won’t be fast and sometimes late,
But it would be a pleasure to be around at 98.
I will have changed many things and had a wonderful time,
So I’m sure I’ll be willing to leave at 99!”

A few health problems convinced him to accelerate that timetable, but little evidence hints he is going to slow down. He does not hear quite as well as he used to, but even on a long distance phone line, he quickly picks up on most of the questions. He will maintain an office at the district’s headquarters, where he will be available to Ron Bennett, his longtime assistant superintendent who was appointed by the school board to succeed him.

“I like being at work better than not working,” Andrews says. “I expect to be at the office most of the time for the next few months and probably the next few years.”

How about that favorite retirement dream, to read all the books you never had a chance to get to when you were employed? “Yes, I love to read,” Andrews says. What, exactly? “I read magazines of a professional nature,” he says.


Answering the Call
Andrews was born in Oklahoma City in 1908. His father was a teacher and a Methodist minister. Sometimes the family traveled by donkey cart from church to church. They lived in Texas and Ohio, and Andrews decided that he, like his father, also would teach.

He received his bachelor’s degree from Greenville College in Greenville, Ill. He taught in South Dakota and several small districts in Michigan, eventually being hired to his first superintendency in Horton, also near Jackson, in 1941. His wife Ann, who is now 85, had grown up in the area. They were both comfortable with the idea of making their permanent home in that pleasant stretch of southern Michigan, west of Ann Arbor.

Andrews moved to the superintendent’s job in Armada and then answered the call to lead the Vandercook Lake district in 1946. In Education Week, the little school system at that time was described this way: “The district had a single, aging schoolhouse and no bus transportation or hot meals. The boys played football in a little hole called the Dust Bowl; the girls had no sports at all.”

Andrews strongly endorsed the idea of borrowing $1 million to build a new elementary school. He had called in a consultant from the University of Michigan just down the road for advice on possible sites. As recommended, he purchased three possible locations, knowing that staying ahead of the real estate values was a wise administrative strategy.

But many people didn’t see it that way. “They put out a circular the weekend before the Monday when people were to vote,” Andrews recalls. “It said, ‘You don’t want to lose your homes and we don’t need three locations.’”

As a former teacher and a preacher’s son, Andrews had no qualms about accepting the challenge to debate the editor of the local weekly paper, who opposed the bond referendum. After hearing the arguments, “the people voted overwhelmingly to build the new school and we have never had any opposition since. In fact, the votes have always been better than 2-1 in favor of whatever we wanted to put up,” Andrews says.

In 1997 he carried the day with a $5.5 million bond vote. The grateful district, long aware that their superintendent was an unusual man, gave the combined campus of the middle and high school his name and held a big ceremony in his honor.


Shared Success
Andrews says he was proud of his record, although he thinks a succession of hard-working board members, parents and students and some recent actions by the state of Michigan have been a great help. The state legislature and governor, ordered by a court to equalize funding for districts with differing financial resources, voted new state funds for schools. Vandercook Lake gets $6,700 per pupil per year from the state “and the burden has been taken off the local taxpayers,” he says.

Asked if he had it easier because his district was relatively small, Andrews says he doesn’t think so. “You know, some of the communities that are small have lots of problems,” he says. “In fact, I don’t believe there is another school district in Jackson County, well I know there isn’t, that hasn’t lost a village vote repeatedly for different things, and sometimes factions develop in the school districts, for or against propositions.

“We have never, since I have been here, had a major factional dispute in the district, except when I put up that first building,” he says. “But we handled it well, and it has never developed since that time.”

Jay Mathews is an education writer with The Washington Post. E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com