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Finding Schools Chiefs Proves a Difficult Task

Districts across the state are learning that qualified superintendents are hard to come by. As turnover has increased, so has pull of outside opportunities.

April 15, 1998|LIZ SEYMOUR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — Once considered a dream location for top school officials because of its wealth, strong parent involvement and fabulous seaside setting, this city has gone through two superintendents in 18 months.

As the school board this week begins reviewing the resumes of 41 applicants, it finds itself in an unenviable but increasingly common position for California schools: struggling to find a qualified chief.

You think computer programmers are hard to find? Try recruiting a schools superintendent.

An estimated 15 to 20 school boards in Southern California are looking for one. A decade ago, each opening would have drawn more than 50 applicants. Now the typical number is 30, according to the California School Boards Assn.

Yet the demand for superintendents is greater than ever--because districts cycle through their top officials at a faster rate. Five years ago, superintendents stayed on the job an average of four years. Now the average is 2 1/2.

At the same time, top educators have been drawn to more lucrative jobs in the educational materials and testing fields. And with school boards becoming so politicized over such issues as phonics and bilingual education, those superintendents in a comfortable spot are harder to lure away.

"The turnover is unbelievable," said Tom Giugni, the executive director of the Assn. of California School Administrators. "The job is becoming impossible to do and boards are becoming more and more demanding."

Consider the situation in Inglewood: The school board there fired Supt. McKinley Nash a year ago. Three months later, a local election ousted his opponents, and the new board rehired him. But Nash says he's out of the business after this stint.

"There's too many other jobs you can do and make more money and the responsibility is not as great," he said.

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In February alone, at least three Southern California districts lost superintendents: Laguna Beach fired Reed S. Montgomery seven months after he assumed the post--replacing a superintendent who retired under fire over a $2-million financial blunder; Sol Levine of the Beverly Hills Unified School District was forced to announce his retirement after he lost the support of the school board; and Simi Valley school board members fired Dan Flynn, their schools chief of three months.

A month earlier, Centinela Valley Union High School District in Hawthorne fired its superintendent.

All four districts now are searching for superintendents, helped by executive search firms. Centinela hired a firm co-owned by Bill Anton, the former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Ten years ago, the use of such headhunters for filling such positions was virtually unheard of. Now, the state School Boards Assn., which itself provides recruitment services, estimates that about half of the districts needing superintendents seek professional help.

The association was hired for 22 superintendent searches in 1997. During the first three months of this year, it completed 18.

The association currently is trying to help the Simi Valley Unified School District, not only by searching for candidates but also by trying to resolve the bickering and dissension on the board that have caused the district to go through five superintendents since 1990.

Flynn's problems with the board started at the beginning, when only three of the board's five members voted to appoint him. His slim majority evaporated within 90 days as the political winds continued to shift.

"It's extremely important that a board be willing to work together and compromise on what a board wants in a superintendent," said Janice DiFatta, the school board president and one of those opposed to Flynn.

Indeed, a history of turmoil can be a problem in attracting a new superintendent. Just as school boards evaluate potential superintendents, so do the candidates give a critical eye to school boards.

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Though the problem is nationwide, California, with its low per-pupil spending, has particular problems attracting candidates from other states. California's own administrators, meanwhile, can be particularly attractive to other states--which figure that if they have succeeded with the paltry budgets here, they have been proven by fire.

Wilson Riles, who was California's schools superintendent from 1971 to 1983, says the trend of politically divided local boards became noticeable during the 1980s, when would-be politicos began using the seats as a springboard to higher office. In addition, the 1978 passage of the tax-cutting Proposition 13 had gutted the power of local governments to levy property taxes and thus stripped boards of much of their ability to pursue educational programs, said Riles, who now heads an executive search firm in Sacramento.

The job also got tougher as superintendents faced public pressure to improve schools with dwindling resources.

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