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Editorial: Filling Top Jobs in Lebanon Schools

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

The Lebanon School Board won’t get much rest and relaxation this summer. Members are under pressure to hire three administrators integral to the operation of the district — a superintendent; a business administrator responsible for the budget; and a principal for Lebanon High School. Superintendent Gail Paludi, who announced her intention to resign last April, is leaving at the end of month, as is Lebanon High Principal Nan Parsons; the SAU’s longtime financial officer, Jim Fenn, takes off at the end of July.

The board has very little time to fill these looming vacancies. Recruiting superintendents and principals is not a swift or simple business; searches conducted with diligence and deliberation can take many months. The process generally requires the naming of a search committee, an articulation of district goals, a thorough review of the job description, rounds of interviews and careful vetting. Given the time and attention necessary, the Lebanon board wisely decided to hire an interim superintendent until a permanent replacement for Paludi can be found. So far, though, no qualified candidates have applied for the interim position, according to School Board Chairman Jeff Peavey.

The administrative vacuum at the top puts lay board members in a particularly difficult position. Under ordinary circumstances, the superintendent would oversee the hiring of both the high school principal and the business administrator. Now there’s no one to supervise except possibly a team of educational consultants likely to be retained to guide the board through the next steps.

Complicating the logistics of hiring three top school officials is the longstanding shortage of school superintendents across the Twin States and beyond. Turnover among superintendents is frequent, and many are retiring. A 2011 survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that 50 percent of working superintendents, most in their late 50s, planned to leave by 2016. The rush to the exit implies disillusionment with a job that’s become increasingly demanding, in part because of the often-competing political and budgetary demands ­of school boards, parents and voters. Superintendents are required to balance the needs of these overlapping constituencies while also complying with ever-shifting state and federal mandates.

The ongoing shortage of superintendents suggests that school districts and states should look for creative solutions, including unorthodox recruitment strategies and more flexible training schemes. Both New Hampshire and Vermont allow for alternative paths to certification for principals and superintendents. But there’s scope for innovation, both to attract younger educators and to entice others who might want to join the profession.

For example, the association of school administrators recently launched an 18-month training course for novice superintendents, who attend seminars on finance, on how to negotiate with unions and so forth while working with mentors. Why not open similar training courses to teachers with ample classroom experience who might be interested in trying their hand at administration? Districts would benefit from having in the ranks some teachers with business and administrative training who could, in a pinch, step up to the superintendent’s office if necessary. In fact, there’s no reason that teachers and school administrators couldn’t rotate in and out of the classroom and supervisory offices. The silos that define teaching and administration needn’t be so rigid.

The pool of prospective superintendents could also be expanded by including people with unconventional backgrounds, including those who’ve served in the military and government. Running a school system shares much in common with commanding a small army or managing a bureaucracy.

These ideas won’t help Lebanon now. But they could eventually help districts like Lebanon more easily handle the disruptive administrative churn common in so many school systems.