Superintendents leaving schools in 'unprecedented numbers'

Elizabeth Behrman
| Friday, March 4, 2016, 11:10 p.m.

Nancy Hines' schedule is often packed with board meetings, staff meetings and disciplinary hearings.

As superintendent of the Penn Hills School District, she's tasked with helping it rebound from two years of budget deficits. But proposals to raise property taxes, cut courses and eliminate teacher positions haven't won over Penn Hills residents or the teachers union.

After one year as head of the district, she describes her job as “being close to the firing line.”

“You're trying to hold everybody together, but on the same side of that, we have to be willing to be the bad guy,” said Hines, who makes $140,000 a year.

School superintendents are leaving the field in “unprecedented numbers,” cracking under the fiscal and political pressure and buckling under additional responsibilities placed on them as school districts cut administrative staff, according to a 2014 study from the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. On average, superintendents in Pennsylvania spend about three years in the post, the study said.

As veteran school leaders retire or otherwise leave the field, school boards typically replace them internally or hire first-year superintendents on shorter contracts, the study found.

All of those factors have created concern about the availability of qualified superintendent candidates across the state, said Jim Buckheit, executive director of PASA and a former state Board of Education member. The PASA study found that, on average, there were 22 acting or substitute superintendents working at a given time during the 2014-15 school year.

“The job has changed in recent years,” Buckheit said. “It's a combination of the fiscal challenges that districts face and pressures to continue to improve academic outcomes. And instead of having more resources to meet the demands for academic outcomes, they have fewer.”

Not all superintendents face the same challenges. But none of them has an easy job.

They answer to demanding school boards, parents and unions, all while trying to find ways to increase student performance without spending more money.

“Our superintendent starts emailing at some godawful hour of the morning and she's emailing at some godawful hour of the night,” joked Maureen McClure, school board president for the Riverview School District in Oakmont and an associate professor with the University of Pittsburgh's administrative and policy studies program in the School of Education.

In Westmoreland County, Belle Vernon Superintendent John Wilkinson, who has been on the job for four years, said being superintendent is essentially a 24-hour-a-day position.

“I wake up in the morning thinking about the job, and I go to bed thinking about the job,” he said. “I love my job. But the truth is, it's tough. A lot of people are likely not getting into (the field) because it is a tough position.”

As a father of three daughters, Wilkinson said he understands parents' sensitivity when it comes to their children's education.

“Things that come to my level are never easy,” he said. “They've been vetted, whether it's through teachers, counselors or principals' offices, so when it gets to my office, it's never an easy issue to deal with.”

In the Franklin Regional School District, Superintendent Gennaro Piraino will mark his third year as the district's head administrator in April.

“The biggest challenge is getting everyone to come to a level of agreement about what's best for our students from an educational standpoint,” he said. “In the academic, athletic and artistic realms, what's best to help them reach their potential?”

Some superintendents are held to seemingly unachievable standards. The next Pittsburgh superintendent, for instance, has to have not only a doctoral degree and experience leading a district of comparable size, but also a proven record of building relationships with unions, community groups and student leaders and a “commitment to eradicating institutional racism,” according to a job posting.

“It's a tough job,” said Brian Perkins, the consultant working with Pittsburgh Public Schools' board to find a replacement for Linda Lane, who is retiring in June. “Kind of unapologetically, we're saying we know.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Education issued 275 superintendent letters of eligibility in 2014-15, data show. The number fluctuates. It is unclear how many active letters of eligibility there are in the state.

Completion of a graduate-level letter of eligibility program is required for the state certification. About 40 people are enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh's program, said Jerry Longo, who oversees Pitt's program. He also leads the Western Pennsylvania Forum for School Superintendents, which has about 50 members who meet twice a year for networking and professional development.

A former superintendent in the Steel Valley and Quaker Valley school districts, Longo understands the unique challenges and “loneliness” that sometimes accompany the job.

He remembers fretting over his contract renewal every few years and having to explain to his wife that he could be out of a job if the board didn't like his work.

The forum he runs provides district leaders the opportunity to interact with other people experiencing the same things, Longo said.

“We know what a hard career it is,” he said. “Without a lot of support, for some people it can become overwhelming.”

Smaller or rural districts have trouble retaining good leaders because many of them become “training grounds” for superintendents who move up to larger or more established districts, Longo said.

“A lot of times, it's really hard for them to get people and keep people,” he said. “The staying power is an issue.”

Patrick O'Toole has been superintendent of the Upper St. Clair School District for about 10 years. He started climbing the administration ladder after deciding that he could lead the district as well as or better than his superiors when he was a teacher.

He thought he knew what to expect when he accepted the job as superintendent, but things like the added costs of new technology, special education practices or mental health policies weren't factors he considered as a teacher.

“I'm happy with the decision,” O'Toole said. “But even though I think I went into it with my eyes wide open, it's much more complex than I ever imagined it to be.”

Hines, a Penn Hills resident and parent, has no immediate plans to leave her position. She has a four-year contract with the district.

She began her career as a high school biology teacher in Penn Hills and moved to the Steel Valley and Gateway districts as she worked her way up from assisting principal to principal to assistant superintendent. Hines was promoted to superintendent in February 2015.

“I absolutely love my job, although it can be grueling at times and full of uncertainty,” she said.

Staff writer Patrick Varine contributed to this report. Elizabeth Behrman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7886.

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