About Alexandria by Mark Eaton: A few words of advice to the School Board

About Alexandria by Mark Eaton: A few words of advice to the School Board
Mark Eaton (Courtesy photo)

Congratulations to the three returning and six new members of Alexandria’s School Board who take office on Jan. 1, 2022, at an intense time for school boards in Virginia and nationwide.

A newly elected board member described the most prominent issues in the recent campaign as, “… whether to keep the superintendent, the SROs and the effects of the pandemic.” The first of these – replacing a superintendent – is something that is much easier to imagine, or fantasize about, than it is to do.

Almost everyone who cares about the city’s public schools has an image of the ideal superintendent as someone who agrees with our personal views on all major school issues and who operates in a congenial style. It is tempting to imagine that all of the school system’s problems, or our personal problems with the schools, will magically disappear with the installation of a great new superintendent. However, it is easy to overlook the transaction costs, financial and otherwise, of replacing a superintendent.

The announcement of a superintendent’s departure almost inevitably signals the start of a watching and waiting period for administrators and teachers. New ideas and initiatives, no matter how promising, are rarely tried. Operating problems are often unaddressed pending the arrival of the new chief executive. To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion, a bureaucracy at rest tends to stay at rest.

The search for a new superintendent tends to crowd out other critical matters on a school board’s agenda and the time required to find and complete negotiations with a new superintendent seems to increase with each passing year.

Once a start date for a new superintendent is established, the treading water period continues while the new hire, who is almost always an outsider, becomes familiar with the school system and its challenges. When a new superintendent announces a “listening tour” of school communities, this is another way of saying, “I’m not sure what is going on around here, and I’m going to take time to find out.”

Another inescapable fact is that the search for a new superintendent takes place in what is increasingly a very competitive seller’s market. The really excellent people for leadership positions in any demanding field, including public education, are almost always in short supply and they are always costly.

When a school board proudly announces that a search for a new superintendent will be national in scope, this obscures a crucial fact: The search usually must be lengthy to yield a minimum number of acceptable candidates. And executive search and consulting firms add to the cost of replacing a superintendent with their handsome fees and commissions.

Two important but often overlooked economic conditions almost invariably apply when a school board enters into a contract with a new superintendent.

First, the compensation for a new superintendent automatically increases to the prevailing market rate – an analogy might be the attraction of free agency for professional athletes. The new superintendent will always make more money than their predecessor.

Second, the new superintendent’s contract usually contains a provision that establishes a right to a severance if he or she is terminated without cause. The size of the severance payment usually diminishes in proportion to the unfulfilled term of the contract.

Superintendents are rarely terminated for cause, so one of the effects of hiring a new superintendent, or extending the contract of an incumbent, is to establish or increase the severance obligation. Earlier this year Alexandria’s current School Board agreed to a contract extension with Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., the terms of which will be highly relevant to the School Board that takes office in January.

It can be tempting to change superintendents because a majority of a board does not like them or because the superintendent was not hired by the new school board or other reasons not necessarily directly related to performance. Yielding to this temptation can create the unfortunate situation where a school board pays two superintendents, only one of whom actually works. The public reaction to this is invariably negative, as it should be.

Alexandria’s School Board hires one employee: the superintendent. The School Board’s decision is whether legitimate performance concerns outweigh the substantial financial and other costs of bringing in a new superintendent. This is a decision with consequences.

The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006 and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at AboutAlexandria@gmail.com.