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Superintendent turnover rapid, costly

| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

David Goodin came to Connellsville Area School District as superintendent in 2008 thinking he could change academics and administrative operations.

About two-and-a-half years into his three-year contract, significant change did happen — with his departure.

Goodin left, he said, because the makeup of the nine-member school board changed with the 2009 election.

“Quite honestly, I just did not have a good working relationship with that board. It was almost nonexistent,” said Goodin, who earned $109,850, plus $36,697 in health and retirement benefits, and had the district pay $3,557 for professional group memberships. He now heads Spring-Ford Area School District in Montgomery County.

Rapid turnover is not unusual among school superintendents, education experts say.

“I tend to refer to them as highly paid migrant workers,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Alexandria, Va.

Nationally, superintendents stay in a position about seven years, as they have for 30 years, according to survey by the association. But in very large and very small districts, the average tenure is about three years.

No state agency or trade organization reports maintaining Pennsylvania-specific numbers.

In the 2011-12 school year, 104 school districts, or 21 percent of the state's 500 districts, lost superintendents, mostly to retirement, said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators in Harrisburg. That percentage is higher than the usual 15-20 percent, he said.

Gateway school director Dave Magill has worked with five permanent and two temporary superintendents during his 13 years on the board, he said.

“Everybody drives the ship differently. You have one person who is strongly skilled in academics ... and another one is strongly skilled in another area,” said Magill, who acknowledged that change can make initiatives difficult to complete.

In Western Pennsylvania, districts without permanent superintendents include Bethlehem Center, New Castle, Peters, Pine-Richland and Wilkinsburg.

Bowing to pressure

Some superintendents leave under pressure from school boards and parents to meet rising federal and state academic standards and balance budgets without sacrificing buildings or educational programs.

Some observers point to the impact of social media websites, which allow disgruntled people to post venomous attacks against superintendents.

“It's so easy to express your opinions, whether they are informed opinions or not, and you have a widespread audience. ... Superintendents can't really respond to every one of those or you wouldn't be able to get your job done,” said former Pine-Richland Superintendent Mary Bucci, 64, who retired in January after the school board voted 5-3, with one abstention, in October not to renew her four-year contract that was set to expire June 30.

Pine-Richland board members did not return calls for comment, but in November, board President Peter Lyons told the Tribune-Review: “This is not a vote against Dr. Bucci. It is a vote to engage in more growth and continued change.”

Four board members who voted not to renew Bucci's contract had tenures of less than a year.

Bucci said she didn't know why they chose not to renew her contract. All six of the district's schools made adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“I never had a conversation with the full board about my future or the future of the district, so I really couldn't answer that question,” she said.

Costly changes

Replacing superintendents, with contracts for three to five years, can be costly, given the expense of search firms, competitive salaries, legal fees, relocation expenses and other items, education industry experts said. Severance packages for departing superintendents can carry a hefty price tag.

After controversial buyouts, such as Mt. Lebanon's 2004 decision to pay more than $500,000 to then-Superintendent Margery Sable, the Legislature enacted a law last year to limit the value of buyouts for public school superintendents and require that severance packages be detailed in contracts.

In 2008, the Peters School District paid about $120,000 to buy out then-Superintendent Timm Mackley, ending a strained relationship.

Two years earlier, the district spent $3,275 on a search firm that led to his hiring, $3,101 on advertising to fill the position, $130,000 on Mackley's annual salary, $17,295 for his health, retirement and other benefits, and $1,950 for his memberships in trade organizations, records show. Even his business cards cost $175 for 50 cards made in-house.

When Mackley left, the district spent $51,500 to hire Joseph Dimperio, former superintendent of West Mifflin Area and Ambridge Area school districts, as acting superintendent. His business cards cost another $175, and the district spent $2,694 in legal fees related to Mackley, according to court documents.

Nina Zetty, 54, whom the Peters board promoted from assistant superintendent to superintendent to succeed Mackley in August 2008, left in November to become superintendent of Gateway School District in Monroeville. Zetty said she took the Gateway job for the challenge of implementing a tougher curriculum in a district that failed to make adequate progress. She succeeded Joseph Petrella, who left Gateway after two years as superintendent to go to Illinois.

In January, Peters hired Chester County Intermediate Unit to find Zetty's replacement, for a maximum fee of $21,000.

School board members declined to comment about superintendent-related issues. Board President Cynthia Golembiewski directed inquiries to Dimperio, again the acting superintendent, who receives $500 a day.

Dimperio said the district plans to involve the public in its search, through public meetings.

In Peters, the potential for instability from losing a leader is as worrisome as the financial toll, one parent said.

“It's unfortunate that we can't, you know, get some continuity and someone who can really put … some consistency for the curriculum,” said Linda Carpenter, 48, the Peters Township High School Parent-Teacher-Student Association secretary and a mother of three daughters enrolled there.

Board whims

After Goodin's departure from Connellsville, the district picked Tammy Stern, director of curriculum and instruction and federal programs, to be interim superintendent, boosting her $98,246 salary with a $10,317 raise. It paid $13,013 to a firm for a superintendent search and advertising.

The shrinking Connellsville district can't afford to waste money to replace superintendents at the whim of board members, school director Thomas Dolde said.

Dolde said other members of the school board didn't like Goodin, but he didn't know why. No other board members would comment.

The district's enrollment declined 16.4 percent to 4,695 students between the 2004-05 and 2011-12, state Department of Education data show. Connellsville pays $117,100 annually for Superintendent Daniel Lujetic's salary, $45,165 for his health and retirement benefits and $1,099 for his professional memberships.

Mars Area School District Superintendent William Pettigrew, 64, said he will retire in December after 43 years in education.

The challenges caused by enrollment swings, budget woes and finicky school boards are nothing new to him, he said.

“You have people who like you and dislike you. … You have to do what's best for the kids.”

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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