Superintendents: Modern Day “Carpetbaggers” or “Happy Wanderers?”

by T. C. Mattocks

T. C. Mattocks, associate professor of Educational Leadership in the College of Education and Allied Services, Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, MA
The term “carpetbagger” [so called because they carried their belongings in carpetbags] was not unique to the American experience. It was used in England in the mid-1800s to describe certain officeholders in government, politics and diplomacy who “sought public office in a locality where he has no real connections.”[1] Other sources have defined the term as describing “an outsider, especially a politician, who presumptuously seeks a position or success in a new locality.”[2] A much more shallow description defines such an individual as “a person who places expediency above principle, as when a politician who moves to a place where he/she sees an opportunity to promote his/her career.”

If you would accept the premise that today’s school superintendent, in many ways, has become a ‘carpet-bagger,’ then a discussion of how that has happened in the 100 years since our chosen profession became a bona-fide higher education major is in order.

Do you notice any similarities in the derogatory definitions noted above and the typical school superintendent?

Does a superintendent seek public office in a locality where he/she has no real connections?

One would have to answer “Yes” to that query since well over 90% of school superintendents are elected/chosen/hired to lead a school district from which the superintendent did not graduate. Indeed, in many cases the superintendent takes such a position in a state in which he/she never lived before assuming this top leadership role. It is a fact of our profession that we are brought in from somewhere else to educate someone else’s children according to the demands of some nameless amorphous government official or agency who expect us to somehow make do with less each succeeding year.

Does a superintendent move to a place where he/she sees an opportunity to promote his/her career?

Again, the answer is a strong “Yes!” It is what we do when we want to advance our careers and are more ‘career-bound’ than ‘place-bound.’ There are certainly many superintendents who have spent their entire career in one state. The extreme rarity is the superintendent who graduated from high school in a certain community, went away to college, military, etc., and then returned to his/her alma mater only later to become the superintendent. That is the extreme in ‘place-bound!’

Most superintendents are in the ‘career-bound’ mode. We graduated from high school here; went to college there; found our first job in still another locale or state; got the advanced training/degree and began the career long search for some Nirvana place that would always be happy with our decisions, respect and admire us the job that we did as a school leader; never have to write another letter of application or ‘rev up the résumé’; and retire on our own terms to nearby “Happy Valley!” It may have been in my dreams at one time, but it certainly was not the reality of my 48 years (and counting) in education.

Whether ‘career-bound’ or ‘place-bound’ an ominous cloud on the future of all school leaders in this nation was recently ferretted out in a national survey of American school superintendents by the American Association of School Superintendents (AASA). Only about half (51%) of the respondents said that they planned to still be a superintendent in 2015—a finding suggesting the probability of substantial turnover in the next few years.[3]

Change Happens

Is there a reason why the average ‘lifespan’ of a school superintendent is less than four years?[4] True, there are noteworthy exceptions to this quadrennial migration from one location to the next, but the superintendent who serves more than 10-12 years in the same school district is a rarity. It is generally accepted in organizational theory that a change in the leadership at the top can cause angst among those who work in the organization, can cause a disruption in the established goals, and can lead to defection by other members of the leadership team. If it can be accepted that good leadership will generally result in ‘happy campers’ from the staff all the way up to the school board level, then some of this leadership vacancy miasma could be cause-and-effect that is neither good nor bad for the superintendent.

However, when the superintendent’s relationship with the hiring authority [school board; school committee; town council] is no longer producing satisfactory results that make the superintendent feel valued, it is time to voluntarily move on before being asked to move on. There is a good reason why we don’t want even our most respected Presidents to hang around the Oval Office for more than eight years. Leadership can go stale over time. So, we pack our “bags” and move on to the next place of bright promise!

Even though leadership can go stale over time, there is, arguably, ‘never a dull moment’ in the life of the superintendent. Indeed, this is borne out by the findings in the recent AASA survey:

“The work portfolio of America’s superintendents is increasingly diverse, encompassing not only student achievement, but the diversification of staff populations, the explosion of technology, expanded expectations from the government, the school board and the community, and the globalization of society.[5]

Salary Disparity

When a superintendent arrives in a school district, it is with a salary commensurate with what the “market forces” generally dictate for that community, that school district, and what surrounding communities are paying their superintendent. But with every superintendent vacancy the “market forces” change, generally upward, in terms of salary. The superintendent who chooses to stay in place will, over time, become one of the lowest paid in the area, even it he/she was initially hired near the top of the salary grid.

This phenomenon happens with all those in public education who are subject to some form of salary grid that locks one into place for long periods of time unless more education can be brought to bear to change the salary locator. For a superintendent, however, more education is generally not an option that leads to a higher salary in the same location. Since most leadership salaries are now based on external factors, such as student test scores, the leader is at the mercy of the hiring official’s perception of  “worth.”

This leaves the school leader with the option of choosing to be paid less than his/her neighbor, or to choose to ‘test the waters’ by applying for another job with a higher salary. It gives ultimate meaning in the term “upward mobile.” So, we pack our “bags” and move on to the next place of bright promise!

Poor Foresight

Any superintendent who takes a new position has done his/her due diligence in terms of researching the mores, values, test scores, demographics, and a thousand other criteria before signing on the bottom line. In some cases, all the research in the world would not have led to a conclusion that the superintendent finds themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not bad research, in some cases it is fraudulent representation of what the exact situation demands: a lack of candor when the correct questions were asked, but the answers were incorrect. The issues can be substantial in the area of available financial support, realistic community support, lack of staff support for new leadership, and many others.

A colleague of mine once summed it up such a situation he encountered by saying that he was presented with: “A poorly articulated past followed by a dimly forecast future!” How can a school leader ever be expected to be able to succeed when that is the situation? In such instances, it is the entirely up to the superintendent on the ways and means that must be used to salvage what was a good career before arrival at the current location. Perhaps the best logic that can be applied is that, in the case of leadership failure due to no fault of his/her own:

  • If it turns out to be a success, the leader is credited as being a true hero (heroine).
  • If it turns out as might be expected, the leader is not to be blamed because no one could not have saved it even with heroic efforts.

The leader who was hired to “fix the problem” was prevented from applying the “fix” that would have worked by outside forces. It is a strange form of a win/win scenario when the above situation presents itself. So, we pack our “bags” and move on to the next place of bright promise!

”My Bad!”

In some instances the fault lies with the leader. For some reason, a sense of entitlement can encroach upon a person who was good enough to be hired, but now is unable to win an election to be the local dogcatcher. Sadly, our profession is rife with examples of questionable professional behavior (usually financial improprieties, but also lapses in judgment about personnel, snow storms, bus routes, etc.), to bad personal choices (sometimes sex-related, but more frequently alcohol related). The tolerance of any community to have less than the best behavior by the appointed leader of the school district approaches zero (a new meaning for the term zero tolerance.) In this instance, we would hope that the leader packs his/her “bags” and just moves on to another career!

“Carpetbaggers” or “Happy Wanderers?”

With all of the land mines that go with the profession of being a public school superintendent, one would think that it must be terribly depressing to have chosen this career. However, the opposite is true. As noted in the AASA Survey:

“The level of job satisfaction expressed by superintendents remains high. A high percentage would again seek to occupy the same position if given the chance to re-live their careers.”[6]

Superintendents are the only public school employees who serve for the purest of reasons - improving student performance. Superintendents are not beholden to any union that is more worried about salaries and working conditions that doing the job. Superintendents do not have preconceived agendas formed by forces outside the community in which they serve. Superintendents are not focused on the number of hours worked, but on the outcomes of student performance no matter how long it takes. Though bombarded by barbs from the public they serve, superintendents try to operate in an atmosphere of mutual trust, common goals, and collaboration. If their leadership style does not work in one community, it doesn’t mean that it won’t work in the next community. Success is situational.

In Conclusion

Does a superintendent seek public office in a locality where he/she has no real connections?

Yes! That is the nature of the job that one moves from one location where there may be familiarity and trust to a new community where familiarity and trust must be again be built from the ground up. Believe me, it is NOT easy on the superintendent’s family or marriage to go through a series of career-building opportunities, each one requiring major sacrifices by those closest to the leader.

Does a superintendent move to a place where he/she sees an opportunity to promote his/her career?

Yes! That is not a negative appellation when one considers that the new place has a need for a new superintendent. An opportunity in another location will present new challenges, new obstacles, and a new environment ripe with the possibility of success. It is what we do when we want to advance our careers.

Is a superintendent an outsider, especially a politician, who presumptuously seeks a position or success in a new locality?

Guilty! Again, that is the nature of our position. Professional growth is generally achieved in our profession by moving to larger, more challenging, more complex organizations than the ones we have previously led. And, make no doubt, superintendents are politically involved at every level in their efforts to bring about the changes that will promote student success.

Even though, by the original definitions noted at the beginning of this article, we’re NOT ‘carpetbaggers’ in any sense of that original, and sometimes, derogatory meaning of the term. Are we opportunists? Absolutely! We try to see the best in every situation and do our best to make progress with our students in the face of incredibly intense pressures. Our goal is to succeed so the students entrusted to our charge can succeed! If not here, then certainly at the next job for which we are chosen.

Just call us “Happy Wanderers!”

T. C. Mattocks ( has served as superintendent in many school districts throughout the country and present serves as an associate professor of Educational Leadership in the College of Education and Allied Services, Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, MA.

[1] Kernerman English Multilingual Dictionary © 2006-2010 K Dictionaries Ltd.

[2]Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

[3]American School Superintendent: 2010 Decennial Study

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.