Feature Pages 26-33
Family in the Public Eye
Superintendents expect to operate in a fishbowl but anguish about the effects on their spouses and vulnerable children
BY SARAH E. CARR
When John Emshoff’s daughter graduated from high school in Boyd, Texas, last spring, the superintendent and his family made the painful decision to skip the ceremony. Emshoff had recently announced he would resign as chief of the 1,100-student Boyd Independent School District at the end of June — under pressure from the school board and three years before the end of his contract.
School board members invited Emshoff to speak at the event despite his looming departure, but he left the decision up to his daughter Kayla. The 18-year-old determined she did not want to risk becoming “a spectacle” on such an important day.
John Emshoff and daughter Kayla
The family tried to make sure graduation still felt official and special: Relatives gathered for a private ceremony in a park. Emshoff dressed in a suit and delivered a speech. His daughter wore a cap and gown and received her diploma surrounded by supportive family members. Afterward, the small group went out for a celebratory dinner.
“It wasn’t what we wanted to do,” Emshoff says, “but if I had gone to the public event, people would have been whispering.”
Superintendents know they work and live in a giant fishbowl. School board members, teachers, community members and the news media have been known to scrutinize what kind of vehicle they drive, who they socialize with outside of work, whether they drink alcohol, where they live and when they leave the house each morning. But when the harsh glare of the spotlight descends on a spouse or child — simply by virtue of marital status or bloodline — even the most thick-skinned superintendents can come to resent the very public nature of their job.
Family privacy always has been an issue for superintendents, but experts and school officials say the challenges have intensified in recent years owing to the exponential growth in social media and states’ fiscal woes. Virtually anyone can spread gossip or misinformation via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, the comment streams beneath online news stories or text messages. Meanwhile, superintendents grappling with leaner budgets during a national recession have had to make unpopular, and sometimes incendiary, decisions about staff reductions, program cuts and union negotiations.
Terre Davis, a superintendent search consultant based in Westcliffe, Colo., struggled with family privacy when she served as superintendent of two Michigan school districts in the 1980s. A school board member who disapproved of the Toyota she drove told her she should switch to an American-manufactured brand. Worse, one of her teenage daughters was beaten up in a high school bathroom, and another run off the road — because Davis took such a hard line against the teachers union.
Still, despite those personal challenges, Davis says privacy concerns for superintendents and their families have grown far worse over the last three decades. She blames the escalating use of online media without a rulebook and an accompanying shift in societal norms surrounding what — or who — should be considered off limits. “There is absolutely no accountability for people who say bad things about you on the Internet,” says Davis, who hears these issues arise with regularity during the superintendent searches she conducts for school boards.
The half dozen superintendents interviewed for this article say they fear job-related malice directed at their children far more than any other privacy concern.
Janice Cooper and daughter
Janice Cooper’s daughter grew up attending schools in the Lake Worth Independent School District, located just northwest of Fort Worth, Texas, where the mother has served as superintendent for 13 years. But in 5th grade, the girl started to receive pushback from peers related to her mother’s position. “If she made good grades, other kids would say, ‘That’s just because your mother is superintendent,’” Cooper recalls.
The problems intensified when her daughter started the 8th grade in 2010 and the district had to cut about 30 staff positions. The superintendent’s daughter received text messages from friends asking, “Why does this coach have to leave? Can’t (your mother) do something about it?” says Cooper. “It was devastating to her because she loved some of these teachers, too.”
The girl developed such severe anxiety about going to school that a doctor recommended putting her on homebound instruction. She finished middle school at home and started high school in a neighboring district last fall.
“People who have not been in this position don’t understand how devastating it can be,” Cooper says. “There is no privacy. … The job takes a toll on relationships, there’s no question about that.”
Several other superintendents also have seen their children bullied or harassed, usually verbally or via text message, as a result of their bloodline. At times, the teasing is lighthearted, as when students needle the superintendent’s child to pressure his or her parent to cancel school when it snows. But, too often, the words take a personal toll.
Michael Buoniconti’s daughter was only in 2nd grade when a classmate, the child of a school district employee, began making “snide remarks” to
Michael Buoniconti joined son Robbie in dressing up for spirit week.
her, Buoniconti says. The Mohawk school system in Shelburne Falls, Mass., where Buoniconti is serving his eighth year as superintendent, faced substantial budget cuts, and the child parroted her mother’s critiques of the school chief’s decisions. The situation grew intolerable when Buoniconti realized some staff members had refused to intervene on his daughter’s behalf. He, too, moved his child to a different school district — in this case in the middle of the school year.
The fishbowl effect on families is heightened in small communities, says Davis, the veteran search consultant, and several superintendents. In cities and larger towns, the spouses and children of public officials are more anonymous, and the superintendent may not be one of the most visible or controversial political figures in the community. Moreover, urban superintendents are more likely to have public relations staff to provide counsel and serve as a buffer on sensitive issues.
“If you are a city superintendent, you have a shield around you,” says Davis. “In a small town, you are it.”
Robin Morgan, the wife of a superintendent in a rural farming town in eastern Washington, knows this all too well. In 2006, her husband, Michael Morgan, became superintendent of the Colfax School District, which serves a town of fewer than 3,000 residents. Robin Morgan worked as the pharmacy technician in Colfax’s only drug store, a popular gathering spot where area farmers and their wives gossip and catch up on local news. Her boss’s wife teaches in one of the Colfax schools.
At first, Morgan tried to distance herself from her husband. But townspeople quickly discovered the connection. Parents and teachers, even her boss at the pharmacy, bent her ear about their school-related concerns, hoping she would pass them on to her husband. They told her about criticisms they had of various teachers and ideas for budget cuts when the district fell on hard financial times. They even reported rumors of married staff members engaged in affairs.
Over time, Morgan learned to ignore the comments and avoid the most politically charged conversations. But initially she worried constantly about whether to relay the information to her husband. She had not expected she would become such a public figure. “I needed a folder telling me what to do,” she says. “I didn’t know how to handle the stress loads that went with the job. I didn’t know I had a job, honestly.”
Living in the public eye can shape the personal lives of superintendents and their families in myriad ways — influencing the restaurants they patronize, the friends they hang out with and the hobbies they choose.
“I’m pretty sure everyone in town knew who I was,” says Sarah Morgan, daughter of Robin and Michael Morgan. She was moving into her junior year of high school when her father became superintendent in Colfax (moving up from high school principal). “I felt like I had to be a good student and that I needed to represent my dad well in public,” the 22-year-old, now a college graduate, says.
Superintendents report they often alter their social habits — both online and in person — and ask their spouses and children to do so, as well.
“The superintendency brings with it some constraints that other positions don’t,” says Darrell Floyd, superintendent in Stephenville, Texas. Floyd’s family is doubly aware of those constraints because his wife also serves as a superintendent, in the nearby Huckabay Independent School District. “We both have to be very careful about what we do in public,” he says. “We won’t go to Chili’s and sit at the bar and have a beer.”
Floyd says he would not want people to associate him and his wife Cheryl with drinking or partying. Moreover, relatively harmless activities or private comments easily can be taken out of context. Floyd and his wife have drilled that message into their children for years. “Having grown up in a two-superintendent household, our kids have heard so many times that issues raised at the dinner table don’t need to go anyplace else,” he adds.
Brian Salzer (right) shown with his partner of 17 years, Carlos Schillaci.
Brian L. Salzer, superintendent in Northampton, Mass., says he and his partner of 17 years have learned to enjoy the public nature of their lives. Otherwise, he says, they would be miserable. “To become a superintendent, you have to embrace the celebrity and publicity of it as a family. We know when we leave the house we are in the public eye. … If you don’t love it and embrace it, it can weigh pretty heavily.”
Some degree of attention is inevitable, given that the superintendent may be the best-paid public official in a small community. School district leaders can take precautionary measures to avoid unwanted exposure. For instance, says Davis, the veteran search consultant, superintendents should not become too close with their school board members. “You cannot become a friend of your board member. They begin to know too much about your family,” she adds. That information can be used against a superintendent if there’s a personal or professional rupture down the road.
However, Davis and other observers encourage school district executives to remain open about the most significant parts of their personal and private lives. If a superintendent has a drunk-driving arrest on his or her record, it’s better to say so at the point one is a finalist for a new position rather than wait for someone else to dredge it up.
Salzer has been upfront about his sexual orientation since he started his career in school leadership. Some colleagues were nervous about that openness when he accepted his first administrative position in Sauk City, Wis., several years ago. The community was less liberal than Northampton, a college community in western Massachusetts, and they worried he might encounter discrimination.“
It was not a problem at all,” he says. “The more open you are, the less criticism you get.”
Salzer tries to be discreet, however, about discussing the more insignificant details of his life, including what novel he is reading and when he chooses to spend the weekend in New York City with his family. “People have enough information about my life as it is,” he says.
Family members, too, need guidance about what details of their lives to share and what to keep close to the vest.
Greg Baker, superintendent of Bellingham Public Schools in Washington, benefited from the advice of Thomas Payzant, former Boston superintendent, who served as a mentor while Baker participated in Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program. But Payzant’s wife also provided some informal coaching to Baker’s spouse, Jeanie, giving her a sense of what to expect long before her husband even accepted a top district post.
Partly as a result, Jeanie Baker says she tries to be “real deliberate about maintaining family time” while also recognizing her husband’s demanding job means she will have to do some parenting of their three children on her own.
“One of the hardest things is having your own identity,” she says. “A lot of the time, I am introduced as (my husband’s) wife.” It helped, she adds, to see that Ellen Watson Payzant was “her own person with her own interests,” in addition to being the wife of the superintendent.
Since her husband became superintendent two years ago, Baker has gotten to know other spouses at professional conferences. But she says more consistent support — and opportunities to vent — would be helpful. “It would be nice to have a superintendents’ spouses support group,” she adds.
Even after specific political and familial tensions stabilize, the strain of the superintendency can have lasting effects on family life.
Cooper, the Texas superintendent whose child was bullied, says her daughter, a high school sophomore, is doing much better attending classes in a neighboring district. But the nightmare scenario helped lead to the end of her 16-year marriage. Long after their daughter transferred schools, Cooper’s husband continued to worry about the stress of living in the public eye, which he believed had caused their daughter’s problems. The couple divorced this past summer.
In hindsight, Cooper says she would have done some things differently to avoid her daughter’s mental anguish and the ensuing stress on her marriage. “I would have sequestered my family better,” she says.
Last spring, Cooper hired Emshoff, the Boyd, Texas, superintendent who resigned under duress and skipped his daughter’s graduation ceremony. He joined her administrative team as director of special services.
Emshoff enjoys the lower profile that comes with his new position. He no longer has to worry about misinformed rumors that his wife, a school counselor, had received extra resources because of her marital status. He does not have to listen to board of education members who claim his son made the varsity baseball team solely because his father is the superintendent. And he hopes he will be able to attend the graduation ceremonies for his two younger children.
Emshoff might consider serving as a superintendent again — but only when his children are grown.
As superintendent, he says, “I never slept. My neck was always tight. I was mentally absent. I am now much more relaxed than I have been in years. And I think my family notices.”
Sarah Carr, a freelance writer in New Orleans, La., is the author of the forthcoming Hope Against Hope, about the post-Katrina schools of New Orleans. E-mail: email@example.com