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Arizona school districts struggle to keep superintendents

When Elizabeth Celania-Fagen signed on as the superintendent of Arizona’s second-largest school district in 2008, she said she planned to raise her family in Tucson and serve at least five to 10 years.

But this April, the youngest and highest-paid school chief in Arizona announced she was leaving the 56,000-student Tucson Unified School District to head a district in Colorado. In her resignation letter, the 36-year-old mother cited inadequate school funding.

“As the state budget reductions to education in Arizona continue to deepen, to what we feel is an unacceptable level, we found it necessary to consider another opportunity for our family,” she wrote after accepting the offer in Castle Rock, a suburb south of Denver where the 54,000-student Douglas County School District is based.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, a TUSD parent and president of the Arizona Education Network, a nonprofit group that advocates for public school students and educates the public about education issues, said the departure points to a much bigger problem.

“If we’re a state where funding is so low that we are driving out good superintendents and good principals and good teachers and we can’t attract those folks, then that is very bad news for the overall quality of education in our state,” she said.

Superintendents in Arizona have long earned less than counterparts across the country while confronting levels of spending per student that rank among the nation’s lowest, according to a number of state and national associations and government agencies.

Deep cuts to public education funding have spread resources even thinner in recent years.

A Cronkite News Service review of 94 superintendents’ contracts in districts with about 1,000 or more students found 40 in the first two years of their superintendency. At least nine districts will get new chiefs this summer.

“This is unusually high,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, or AASA. “With a turnover like that, a district doesn’t really have the opportunity to stabilize. When you look at high-performing school systems, what you always see is stability.”

In addition, the average salary of $120,700 in those districts was 22 percent lower than the national mean reported by AASA.

Superintendents’ job responsibilities, which range from overseeing air quality and bus routes to dealing with school boards and the public, are closer to those of a private-sector executive than a principal or teacher, Domenech said.

“You’re hiring CEOs to run multi-million dollar corporations, supervising thousands of staff members, so the person needs a great deal of experience and skills in doing that, and there just aren’t that many,” he said.

In interviews, experts also cited competition from charter schools, which cuts into per-pupil funding, and the pressure of complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act as reasons for superintendent turnover.

School boards across Arizona have tried upping the ante – even amidst the state budget crisis – with headhunters, higher salaries and better benefits to bring in outside talent, but more often than not, these have been losing bets, according to an Arizona case study by scholars with the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and James Madison University.

Robert Maranto, the Arkansas department’s 21st Century Chair in Leadership, said picking the right leader is often an all-or-nothing game, the results of which can make or break a district.

“If you hire the right people, you can screw up almost everything else and it will work,” Maranto said, “but if you hire the wrong people, you can do everything else perfectly – funding, curriculum, professional development, whatever – and the schools are still going to fail.”

While several scholarly studies have said it takes at least five years for a superintendent to make an impact with a district, Maranto said it usually takes eight to 10 years.

Budget woes

Maria Menconi, a director for the statewide AZLEADS3 initiative to develop superintendents and principals, said Tucson Unified is a classic example of problems arising from Arizona’s relatively low pay for superintendents and high stress due to tight budgets.

“As a state we’re looking around us and saying, ‘But now you want me to impact children and you want me to take away smaller class sizes and take away all-day kindergarten and take away specialists for kids,’” said Menconi, who retired in 2006 as superintendent of the Kyrene School District in Tempe. “Why would I want to work for less and not have anything going in our direction for the kids, too?”

John Pedicone, a retired superintendent and senior faculty fellow at University of Arizona’s College of Education, said even Celania-Fagen’s $205,000 salary – 12 percent below the national norm for large urban districts and far from the $267,000 she’ll get in Douglas County – couldn’t compensate for the challenges she’d face by staying in Arizona.

“You can’t get the work done within these kinds of budget constraints,” said Pedicone, who until recently sat on the state Board of Education. “So take that factor and add in all the implications of what happens in a state that appears to look at education as a liability rather than an asset, and people begin to question whether the job is worth doing in that kind of environment.”

Debra Duvall left the Mesa Unified School District, Arizona’s largest, last year after more than two decades, one of which she spent at the helm. She said she grew tired of budget reductions and didn’t see them stopping any time soon.

“I was having to take actions that would limit programs I’d put in place 15, 20 years before, and it broke my heart.”

In addition, politics often prevent superintendents from getting or keeping bonuses and raises, said Karen Beckvar, a leadership development specialist with the Arizona School Boards Association.

For instance, Celania-Fagen returned her $20,000 performance bonus, a conditional fringe benefit in her contract, just months before applying for the Douglas County School District job.

“When you’re only giving a minimal raise to all your employees each year, it’s hard for a superintendent to make any significant progress on their salary without leaving and going to another district,” Beckvar said.

Superintendent searches

When it comes time to find a new chief, most school boards enlist outside help to handle the search, a practice that can get expensive when the person chosen doesn’t stick.

The Arizona School Boards Association, or ASBA, conducts between 80 and 85 percent of such searches for a general rate of $1 per student, said John Gordon, director of leadership development for the organization.

Private consultants or national headhunting firms handle the rest at higher rates.

Tempe Union High School District spent $30,000 on a national search in 2004 and then again in 2007 before promoting from within.

Paradise Valley Unified hired its last five chiefs internally, but in three cases the district’s governing board paid up to $45,500 for a consultant to conduct a nationwide search.

“What they want to do is show their community that they’ve done a thorough search for a qualified superintendent, even though they hire an inside person” Gordon said. “So they can say, ‘We got the best person for the job.’”

Maranto, with the University of Arkansas, said searches don’t necessarily accomplish that goal because resumes and interviews don’t always establish whether a candidate is trustworthy, has students’ best interests at heart or will stick around.

He and others interviewed said the vetting process is often diluted by the need to protect applicants’ current positions by keeping the process closed and not talking with an applicant’s co-workers and staff.

Maranto said a superintendent he knew of “had Ted Kennedy’s drinking, Bill Clinton’s sex life and George W. Bush’s attention to detail, but if you just look at his resume, he seems fine.”

Hiring retirees

After a $48,000 search in 2009, the Scottsdale Unified School District’s governing board tapped Gary Catalani, who as a retiree typifies one niche Arizona has in recruiting superintendents: an appeal to seniors and snowbirds.

Catalani’s $195,000 salary with Scottsdale Unified far less than he made with a Chicago-area district with half as many students. But the economics can work for those who also draw retirement checks for work in other states, said Gordon with the Arizona School Boards Association.

“More than anything, I think they come for our sunshine, our climate and what our geography has to offer as much as what a district offers,” Gordon said.

This advantage can be a double-edged sword, Gordon and others said, since many of those in this group will retire before putting in the three to eight years considered necessary to make an impact on a district.

Meanwhile, some Arizona superintendents have stayed on past retirement by entering into third-party contracts that allow them to collect between 70 and 80 percent of their old salary from the Arizona State Retirement System plus a slightly discounted salary from their school district, the review of superintendents’ contracts showed.

Virginia McElyea of Deer Valley Unified School District and Gail Malay of the Lake Havasu Unified School District are contracted through Educational Services Inc., and Jim Walker of the Page Unified School District has a similar arrangement with smartschoolsplus, an ESI competitor.

ESI founder John Tavasci pioneered the idea after he completed 30 years in the system and realized he was working full-time at Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District for a salary just 14 percent higher than what he would draw in pension.

“They’re getting two checks now,” said Tavasci, who sees it as a win-win since leasing districts don’t provide benefits or contribute to retirement but still get top-notch experience and, in some cases, continuity.

Losing climbers

A lack of continuity is the biggest shortcoming of Arizona’s other out-of-state applicant pool: climbers who tend to use districts as stepping stones toward even better opportunities, Maranto said.

These administrators, usually younger, jump at the chance to lead a bigger or more challenging district, but this upward mobility often has them onto greener pastures at the first opportunity, Maranto said.

“By their second or third year, they start looking for the next job, move on and say, ‘Look at me, I started all these flashy initiatives,’ but there’s not really much effort to implement these initiatives,” he said. “In the end it just makes the teachers and principals and office staff cynical.”

Menconi, the former Kyrene School District superintendent, said she has seen many colleagues leave for this reason and added that it’s natural for up-and-comers to leave Arizona.

“They see salaries and working conditions that are substantially better,” she said. “If they’re younger and more in the prime of their careers and have a young family, they’re going to go.”

Grow your own

Virtually all of the longest-serving superintendents spent most or all of their careers in Arizona, with many starting as teachers and working their way up over decades in the district.

“The most successful districts are really good at picking out people with potential for leadership roles and mentoring them and moving them up,” Maranto said.

But promotions from within comprise less than a third of superintendent hires, said Gordon with the Arizona School Boards Association, because struggling districts need an outsider to shake up the culture or at least give that impression to the public.

Maranto and Gordon said there’s often a lack of succession management and mentorship for rising stars who could with some help from experienced administrators take the reins eventually.

“And that’s something you can’t really mandate,” Maranto said. “The state can’t pass a law saying, you know, ‘Thou shalt be good mentors.’ If only it were that easy.”

A grant-funded state Department of Education initiative called AZ LEADS3, helps develop first-time superintendents and principals to improve the chances that they’ll last beyond their first contract.

As a director and coach for the Novice Superintendent Network, which provides mentorship and professional development for new superintendents, Menconi, the former Kyrene superintendent, has seen several dozen through their first two years on the job.

“The learning curve is kind of straight up Mount St. Helens, with a volcano at the top,” she said with a laugh.

5 comments

  1. Why is it that CATHOLIC SCHOOLS only have (1) One Superintendent to manage an entire diocese that goes beyond Maricopa County and Public Education needs a superintendent in every school district ? Maybe it’s time to look to the Catholic Educators for some successful leadership, real management that works and provides quality education with high test scores and a successfuk track record of students going on to college. It is obvious all the money taxpayers provide never sees the classroom or student…just administrative wages and wasteful spending. Stop using the “Fear” tatic and make some dramatic changes… Arizona’s children deserve better. We are “Top Heavy” with administrators and need to put quality programs back into public education like, ART, MUSIC, Chorus, Home Economics, Shop, Auto Mechanics and basic teaching.

  2. Great Site. Keep up the good work!

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