When No. 2 is Best
Superintendents take a step down the leadership ladder and find the fit just fine
BY MERRI ROSENBERG/School Administrator, March 2018

Lots of late nights at board of education meetings and expected attendance at a slew of student activities and community events. The loss of anonymity whether attending local worship services or buying groceries. Dealing with contentious politics, whether at the local board level or at the statehouse. Inadequate financial resources to achieve one’s vision or even basic educational needs. And then there’s the loneliness of being at the top, without colleagues who can fully appreciate the pressures or work through the thorniest issues.

Such is the lot of the contemporary superintendency. Small wonder then that a growing number of assistant and deputy superintendents are declining offers to step up to the top job, while others who have served as superintendents are opting to return to a No. 2 berth on the organizational leader.

Executive search firms that are hired by school boards to land the best talent to fill a superintendent vacancy are front-line observers of this emerging trend.

“There are more people in the situation who are declining to move forward,” says Dennis Ray, president of Northwest Leadership Associates in Liberty Lake, Wash., which has run about 250 searches since 2000. “Ever since education became more controversial, with a strong focus on test scores and comparing one district to another or one state to another,” he adds, the emphasis on politics has been frustrating to experienced education leaders who might prefer to focus on curriculum or instruction.

Spurning Opportunities

Consider someone like Terrell McCarty, who savored his role as an assistant superintendent focusing on the operational side of the district, after serving as a high school principal for 16 years in Manhattan, Kan. The central-office perch gave him the space to finish his Ed.D. and lent other significant benefits.

“Serving as an assistant superintendent allowed me more time to do this (the doctoral dissertation) because there was no expectation for me to be as visible as a large high school principal or as superintendent,” says McCarty. “It got me out of the limelight.”

For four years, despite many entreaties, McCarty kept turning down offers to apply for vacant superintendent posts, only relenting last summer. What finally changed his mind and helped him make the leap was the prospect of an appealing situation in a district where the scale, challenges and community support seemed like the right fit. He now heads the 1,200-student school system in Perry, Okla., where he can build programs and develop staff.

Losing Luster?
The career path used to be straightforward for the most ambitious and skillful educators — from classroom teaching to administrative roles in school buildings to the central office and, ultimately, to the superintendent’s chair. If moving to a new geographic location was necessary to land a sought-after promotion, so be it.

This is no longer so automatic. And notwithstanding the emergence and proliferation of programs and pipelines to develop a deeper talent pool, the effort to entice candidates to the superintendent’s role has been a harder sell.

The superintendency has lost its attraction to some who would be well-qualified candidates, admits William Dean, a former superintendent who has conducted two dozen ex-ecutive searches as a consultant with McPherson and Jacobson, an Omaha, Neb.-based superintendent search firm. “There’s not much more pay and there’s far more time away from family and much more time with politics,” he says. “There’s also the politics of finance and pressure groups.”

Thomas Altonjy (left) moved from a superintendency after four years to become principal of the Academy of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Franklin Lakes, N.J.
For Thomas Altonjy, an educator with 32 years of experience in New Jersey, including four years as superintendent of the Warren Hills Regional School District in Washington, N.J., 2015 became the year to step down but not out of his profession. He was tired of the long nights out, had reached an age when he could retire from the public school system and was growing more frustrated by a common reality in the superintendency. “The board of education that hired me was different than the board I had four years later,” he says.

The latter factor contributed significantly to his decision to become a principal of a 150-student Catholic school serving prekindergarten through 8th-grade students in Franklin Lake, N.J. As a product of religious schools, Altonjy gratefully returned to his roots. “A principal calls the shots. You don’t have a board of education,” he adds.

Factoring in the economic realities — superintendent salaries had been capped in New Jersey since 2011 by Gov. Chris Christie — meant “the job wasn’t getting less demanding or aggravating,” says Altonjy. “A superintendent has to be a political person, and I’m not.”

Board Bosses
The prospect of working with a school board whose membership might change quickly definitely dampens the enthusiasm of assistant superintendents aspiring to the chief administrative roles.

Working with a nine-member board with “multiple bosses with multiple agendas,” Renee Hyde says, certainly diminished her joy in being a superintendent, a role she filled for five years in Plattsmouth, Neb. “Each of those board members is an individual going in nine different directions, and they’re not always pulling in the same direction. Part of the job is to navigate that. It’s exhausting and I needed to take a step back.”

Since 2007, Hyde has worked as assistant superintendent of human resources in the 12,000-student Papillion La Vista Public Schools in Papillon, Neb., and she is quite pleased with the demands of her No. 2 position. She says, “I’m a very good team builder. I like to identify the talents of people who will work well with one another. Hiring and selecting staff is very, very satisfying.”

Hyde acknowledges she misses being the top organizational leader at times, especially during the legislative season in Nebraska because, she says, “I like to help people understand very complex information.”

Still, she can’t forget why she stepped away from the superintendency in the first place. “I can have a life separate from work. I was not able to find that balance when I was in the superintendency.”

Pursuing Passions
Achieving a satisfactory balance between professional and personal lives can be especially elusive in small or rural districts.

“A lot of assistant superintendents in metropolitan or suburban areas aren’t interested in rural communities,” says Stephanie Hyder, chair of the National Affiliation of Superintendent Searchers and director of executive searches for the Oklahoma School Boards Association.

Jerri Kemble (right) departed a superintendency to oversee technology and career and technical education as an assistant superintendent in the larger Lawrence, Kan., district.

As Barbara Dean, a search consultant with McPherson and Jacobson, observes, “The smaller the district, the fewer positions in central office, so there’s more you have to do.” And in smaller communities, the superintendent is a known figure who’s supposed to be visible at almost every event and occasion. “In small communities, they have no life,” adds Dean.

Jerri Kemble, while serving as a K-5 principal/superintendent in a small, rural district in Kansas, initially found the work challenging but rewarding. Despite statewide budget cuts that caused staffing reductions, she was ambitious and energetic, launching a virtual school in the school district.

“The blessing of a small district is that it’s like a speedboat, where you can turn on a dime,” she quips. She introduced character education and project-based learning in the high school, started a one-to-one initiative with iPads and Macbooks and managed to close a school building. After six years and being out on work-related functions four nights a week, Kemble concluded she was “worn out.”

Yet, she adds, “as a leader, I began to feel that my work here is done and was ready to move on to the next thing.”

A newly created assistant superintendent position in Lawrence, Kan., centered on technology, career and technical education and virtual schools, enticed her to accept the post in 2013. “I really like this role,” Kemble says. “There are things I’m passionate about, and I can focus on those things.”

A Fulfilling Role

For Margaret Billings-Jones, the satisfaction of being able to “focus on what I valued again” makes her position as assistant superintendent in the Oxford, Pa., school district a rewarding one.

Billings-Jones, formerly superintendent for 10 years of the 1,800-student Lakeland schools in Scott Township, Pa., says her career reassessment was prompted by a newly elected majority on the school board whose “values had changed.”

She explains: “There was a shift in priorities that was not on students’ academic achievement. … I’m really here about the children.” Add to that the frustration of being profes-sionally isolated in a small district. “There’s no one else to talk to,” Billings-Jones adds.

With a successful track record behind her, including the introduction of AP physics and an engineering program, she ensured the district was on firm financial footing and progressing academically, all of which made it easier to step away.

In her current No. 2 position, Billings-Jones is able to work on initiatives such as a one-to-one program and curriculum, as well as an early college academy where a select co-hort of students — 100 of Oxford’s 1,300 high school students — can earn an associate college degree before they graduate from high school.

Margaret Billings-Jones inside her office in Oxford, Pa., Area School District, where she works as an assistant superintendent.
“The fulfillment is huge,” she says, while admitting she’s frequently been asked to take on another superintendency, but so far hasn’t been enticed enough to apply.

Never Say Never
Then there are those educators who realize their strengths and personality are better suited away from the spotlight that’s constantly trained on the superintendent.

Joanne Harriman thought she was prepared to be superintendent in Orono, Maine, noting “I had the credentials. … I felt really well trained and ready for the superintendency.” She served in that post from 2013 to 2016.

Her career path had taken her from middle school teaching to directing the curriculum in the central office, which satisfied her desire to work in administration and support teachers in their instructional tactics. “There was a direct connection to kids and working with teachers, who were always so grateful to help improve their craft,” Harriman says.

Being superintendent was different.

“No matter how much you see of a job, you never quite fully understand until you’re in it,” Harriman says. Dealing with labor relations, contracts, public perceptions and political issues were “nerve-wracking,” she admits. “Even going to church on Sunday in town” was challenging. “I felt I could never take the hat off. I was always the superintendent.”

She left 18 months ago to become principal of the Ella Lewis school in Steuben, Maine, closer to her family’s home. It’s the first principalship for Harriman, who calls it an “awesome responsibility” that provides a “direct connection to kids and staff.”

The disillusionment she had with the role of superintendent had much to do with the lack of opportunity to provide direct support to teachers. “I didn’t feel I was so impactful. As a superintendent, you are a lightning rod for controversy. That’s not how I want to spend my time in education. I want to be with kids, to be able to know them. That’s why I went into education. I’ve come full circle.”

Then again, sometimes the door isn’t totally closed to those who willingly drop down a notch or two on the leadership ladder after time spent in the superintendency. As Kemble, the assistant superintendent in Lawrence, Kan., puts it: “There are days I say, ‘Maybe I do want to do again.’ I’m always open for the next opportunity. I’d see what would be a good fit.”

MERRI ROSENBERG is a freelance education writer in Ardsley, N.Y.