School superintendent: A tough job to fill

@FortuneMagazine November 1, 2011: 7:09 AM ET
School superintendent: A tough job to fill

FORTUNE -- The job typically pays about $250,000 a year. That doesn't include the pension and fabulous benefits. You usually get a long-term contract. There's no competition. Customers can't leave. So why do so few talented people want such a great gig?

Welcome to the world of superintendents for public school districts, which I'm learning about firsthand as a parent and taxpayer -- and discovering is an exercise in frustration. In most years about 1,500 districts nationwide will be hiring. I live in a prosperous suburb of Manhattan. But we, like many others, can't seem to find top talent. That struggle represents a key challenge in American education. Schools can have dedicated teachers, thoughtful courses, and sound finances -- yet without an able leader no district is likely to excel.

In my little village the last two superintendents were safe, traditional picks with long careers in school administration. Should we go that route or aim for someone with an unconventional background? Our school board has started the process by hiring a consultant. Ours is Hazard Young Attea & Associates, a national search firm near Chicago specializing in recruiting superintendents. Co-founder Bill Attea has been in the superintendency business for more than 50 years. From 1970 to 1994 he ran the schools in an affluent Chicago suburb. He was hired at 32. Neither his long tenure nor relative youth is prized anymore. "It's extremely difficult to find an appropriate person," he says. "The hiring environment has changed."

The talent pool mostly consists of principals, assistant superintendents, and superintendents who've been shown the door. The last category is a function of boards and superintendents who no longer get along. State and federal requirements have made being a superintendent more complicated. Attea warns of analogizing members of school boards to corporate boards. Whereas most corporate directors have expertise in business or government or academe, school board members have simply managed to get elected.

Moreover, school board members may have done so because of a personal agenda; nobody's on the McDonald's (MCD, Fortune 500) board because of a peeve about Big Macs. Since school board members lack specialized knowledge about education, the argument goes, they ought to largely stay out of district governance. But because meddling is irresistible, superintendents and boards clash. And while superintendents may get, say, a 25% pay increase, it's not worth it if you were a principal and had to give up job tenure. The result is the Groucho effect: Anybody who actually applies to be superintendent isn't someone you want.

We -- and 1,499 other districts that are desperately seeking leadership this year -- are hoping to do better than a Groucho.

This article is from the November 7, 2011 issue of Fortune.  To top of page