What parents and school boards want: visionary leaders to transform public education in Atlanta and, soon, in Cobb County.
What large school districts often get: short-term executives who last an average of three years before being overwhelmed or choosing to move on, leaving their educational systems little better than when they arrived.
Atlanta’s yearlong nationwide search for a superintendent aims to avoid the constant turnover by finding a top-tier candidate who can handle the tough job, with a decision expected in April.
Cobb County’s school board hasn’t released information about how it intends to replace Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who announced on Feb. 3 he plans to resign at the end of this school year.
“Everyone is looking for that superstar who’s going to get quick results,” said Gary Ray, president of Ray & Associates, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based search firm that’s assisting school systems in Baltimore and several other cities. “Leadership starts at the top, and it’s critical for school districts to hire someone who will fit well with the school system and the community.”
That’s easier said than done, in part because of the politics of the job, said Bill Sampson, a consultant for the Georgia School Boards Association, which assists school districts in their superintendent searches upon request.
Superintendents answer to local school boards, whose members are elected every four years. When members change, the board’s educational priorities and relationship with the superintendent also change. The number of superintendent searches has greatly increased since 1992, when an amendment to the Georgia Constitution made all superintendents appointees of elected school boards, Sampson said.
Over the past two years, about one-third of Georgia’s 180 school districts have switched superintendents, Sampson said.
“The pressures of the job have grown as budgets have shrunk and more and more responsibility is being required,” he said.
Superintendents keep their jobs about six years in suburban and rural areas, but only three years on average in urban districts, said Dennis Dearden, associate executive director for AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
Metro Atlanta’s core school districts have followed that trend, with one exception: Gwinnett County Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, who is one of the nation’s longest-serving large district superintendents, having held the job since March 1996.
Wilbanks and the Gwinnett school board avoid conflicts by respecting boundaries between the superintendent’s management duties and the board’s policy-setting role, said board Vice Chairwoman Mary Kay Murphy.
“Mr. Wilbanks works incredibly hard to build consensus,” Murphy said. “He’s not interested in a 3-2 vote or a 4-1 vote. He’s very interested in a 5-0 vote. He works with us until all of our questions and concerns might be answered.”
Urban superintendents have the job of a CEO — managing thousands of employees, large bus systems and dozens of work sites — but they are paid far less and have greater responsibilities than many business executives, said Steve Dolinger, a former Fulton County superintendent who is now president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.
In Cobb, Hinojosa earned a base salary of $237,000 and perks that exceeded $28,000 annually. Atlanta Superintendent Erroll Davis, who plans to retire this year, makes about $240,000.
A key to hiring the right superintendent is to align the desires of the school board, parents and the business community so they’re all supportive of whoever gets the job, said Ann Cramer, chairwoman of Atlanta’s search committee. A superintendent will be hired soon, and a new school board was sworn in last month, giving both a fresh start.
“There’s no perfect candidate, but who would be that person who fits best with the expectations of our community?” asked Cramer. “We have everyone with similar visions moving in the same direction on behalf of the children.”
Search firms expand the scope of a superintendent hiring process by actively recruiting candidates, but school boards may also hire internally or work with the Georgia School Boards Association to seek applicants.
“We are seeing some of the best candidates that I think anyone could ask for,” said Courtney English, chairman of the Atlanta Board of Education, at the Feb. 3 board meeting. “We’re looking forward to bringing in a truly transformational superintendent.”
Proact Search CEO Gary Solomon said search firms help find candidates and work with school boards to build consensus around them. Proact recently completed a search for Richmond, Va., and is handling the search for Oklahoma City schools.
“We joke that everybody is truly waiting for Superman, someone who can leap tall buildings in a single bound,” Solomon said. “It’s a hard job, and you’re never as popular as you are on the first day of the job because you have to make tough decisions for children, and oftentimes those decisions aren’t popular.”
Proact did initial work in Atlanta’s search, but the city school board fired the Wilmette, Ill.-based company last year, replacing it with a partnership of BoardWalk Consulting and Diversified Search, which is dedicating additional resources to the hiring process. Proact announced on Feb. 11 that it has hired Hinojosa as a senior vice president.
Superintendents need to be skilled managers while also avoiding conflicts with their communities, creating a culture that includes everyone, said Dearden of The School Superintendents Association.
“The longer a superintendent is in a district, the better the chance of student achievement rising,” Dearden said. “When you change superintendents every two or three years, it’s very hard to move the district in the right direction. You’re always starting over.”
Superintendent vacancies across the country
Cobb County: 110,000 students
Baltimore: 85,300 students
Anne Arundel County, Md.: 78,500 students
Boston: 57,000 students
Atlanta: 50,000 students
Oakland, Calif.: 48,000 students
Sacramento, Calif.: 48,000 students
Oklahoma City: 43,000 students
San Juan, Calif.: 40,000 students