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Lawmakers shoot down option of electing school superintendents to slow revolving door

The House Education Committee rebuffed a Senate-led initiative Thursday to give Georgia counties the option to elect their local school superintendents who are now appointed by school boards.

Senate Resolution 192 – which would require a statewide referendum — would revive a prior state policy that allowed districts the choice of electing their school chiefs or appointing them. In counties that opted to elect their superintendents, grand juries named school board members.

Georgia voters rejected the practice in 1992 when they approved a constitutional amendment mandating elected school boards and appointed superintendents. The resolution’s sponsor, state Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, argued the switch to appointed school chiefs has yielded few positive results, leading instead to costly national candidate searches, inflated salaries and shorter tenures as rootless superintendents pick up and go when they get a better offer.

“There is no research that shows student achievement is better where there’s an appointed superintendent than where there is an elected superintendent.” said Wilkinson, adding that the promised benefits of appointed school chiefs — higher achievement and longer tenures — never materialized.

Under the old system of elections, Georgia superintendents averaged eight years in the job, he said, pointing out, “The average tenure of a school superintendent in Georgia right now is less than three years."

While Wilkinson's remedy may be extreme and cumbersome -- running for election and re-election every four years would divert superintendents from their important jobs of leading schools -- the north Georgia senator points out the very real problem of leadership turnover in school districts. DeKalb County has had five superintendents in the past decade. Since 2005, Fulton’s had five school chiefs and Cobb’s had three. Clayton has had four school chiefs since 2008 and is now reviewing applications to hire a new one this summer.

I have seen school boards put all their faith in newly recruited miracle workers from out-of-state who never seem to unpack their suitcases because they're always ready to jump to the next big opportunity. There's a cost to that revolving door. In the 2010 report, "Learning from Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning," the authors wrote: "One of the most serious threats to stability in a school district is frequent turnover in the ranks of superintendents, principals, and vice principals. Instability at the school level often reflects a failure of management at the district level."

A former teacher who spent 26 years with the Georgia Department of Education overseeing agricultural education programs, Wilkinson said his own father was an elected superintendent. “There used to be a time when the school superintendent grew up in the community. He was president of the Little League. He or she attended the Kiwanis Club," he said. "They lived here. They went to the church here."

House members heard from many education groups opposed to Wilkinson’s plan, but lawmakers had their own deep doubts as well, reflected in the 17-to-1 vote against the resolution. Recalling the period when his county elected school chiefs, state Rep. Howard Maxwell, R-Dallas, said, "It was a beauty contest or a popularity contest. We had some poor superintendents as a result."

“It appears we try to take a statewide approach sometimes trying to resolve smaller problems where it might be one or two or three counties,” said state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R-Douglas “I have heard from a number of people..their question to me is why, Dominic? We kind of like the way it is working down here.”

Wilkinson said he had to involve every county because the referendum 25 years ago was statewide and forced his community, which wanted to maintain an elected superintendent, to change to an appointed one, telling the House committee, "I just think the people deserve an option and they don’t have that right now.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.