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For Texas school superintendents, frequent turnover becomes part of the job

GRAPEVINE -- Superintendent Kay Waggoner is leaving the Grapevine-Colleyville school district for one twice its size, the Richardson school district. She has been in Grapevine-Colleyville for five and a half years, and according to district officials, community members and Waggoner herself, it has been a good fit.

As basically the chief executive of a small corporation -- the school district has a budget of $141.9 million with 1,650 employees and 13,621 students -- it may not seem like a long time to be in charge.

But Waggoner, who said she was not seeking a new job, is leaving corporate-style -- she was recruited by Richardson for the open job.

Research shows that Waggoner's tenure in Grapevine is typical for a 21st-century superintendent.

Observers say that frequent turnover is inevitable. An urban superintendent must manage staff, work effectively with the school board and boost educational standards and accountability.

"The superintendency is a difficult, difficult job, and some people just get worn out," said Bob Griggs of North Richland Hills. He now is a superintendent search consultant after retiring in 1993 as superintendent of the Birdville district. "The stress is enormous on a day-to-day basis."

Often superintendents are hired in hopes that they will be a district's "savior." But while national averages show it takes about five years for a successful new superintendent to turn around a troubled district, urban superintendents are only around for an average of 31/2 years.

Mac Bernd, who retired two years ago as the Arlington superintendent after serving 10 years in that post, said school boards have become more politically active, making the top jobs more dicey even under the best of circumstances.

Superstar superintendents can quickly lose their lustre. Hector Montenegro, Bernd's highly touted successor in Arlington, resigned under pressure in 2008 after only six months on the job when his alliances with educational foundations became an issue.

The Dallas school district has been through a revolving door of superintendents. Current Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has not been offered the obligatory contract extension during his most recent review.

Schools are pressed to offer more services of all kinds, education financing has become more difficult, and regulations more complex.

"Just in my 10 years in Arlington, the change in the accountability system was profound," Bernd said. "You had to answer to the demands of both the feds and the state, and sometimes those were conflicting."

Research

Superintendents in the Tarrant area are paid well, but in terms of the CEO of a midsize company, it isn't excessive. School districts are often their city's top employer with bigger operating budgets than those of the municipal government.

Fort Worth Superintendent Melody Johnson's base salary is $328,950, and Arlington's Jerry McCullough's base salary is $235,000. Northwest chief Karen Rue makes $215,812, and Southlake Carroll's David Faltys gets $200,000.

Former Crowley Superintendent Greg Gibson's salary was $179,449. His new assignment at Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City pays $183,000, and Jeri Pfeifer at Everman makes $161,500.

"Early on, you've got to make a decision on whether you're career-bound or place-bound," Bernd said. Career-bound superintendents make moves for bigger districts and higher salaries, while place-bound ones live where they're content, with less money and less opportunity for advancement.

"I was career-bound when I went to Arkansas," said Bernd, who only stayed in that assignment for a year. It was his second district. "But when I went to Arlington I was place-bound."

Typically there are about 150 superintendent vacancies a year among Texas' 1,030 school districts, said Mayo Neyland, a consultant with the Texas Association of School Boards executive search firm.

He is currently coordinating superintendent searches for both the 15,000-student Crowley and 33,000-student Irving districts.

Smaller districts are usually where superintendents are developing, Neyland said, and moving up and away.

Results

Superintendent turnover in the Tarrant region actually isn't as high as in other areas of Texas, said Richard Ownby, director of Education Service Center Region XI, which is based in Fort Worth.

The 10 counties in the region have about half the turnover rate of the state average, he said, and of the 77 school districts within the area, only 10 had a superintendent switch last year.

Twenty-five percent of the new superintendents in Tarrant County have been hired from within, Ownby said, mirroring a trend of some cash-strapped districts forgoing the search-firm route altogether to save anywhere from $6,500 to $30,000 in fees.Before 1995, Texas superintendents once had a state-mandated pay scale that discouraged moves to other districts since the small raise was not worth the cost of relocation.

Now, the era of hometown superintendents staying at districts for decades, such as Crowley's Sidney Poynter, who served the district for 40 years, are definitely gone.

Rather than career-length longevity, Bernd said, school boards should look at whether the candidate is likely to stay long enough to accomplish what the board wants.

"Boards can become complacent about salary," Bernd said. "They will let a good superintendent get away, then pay more money for a new superintendent to come in."

SHIRLEY JINKINS, 817-390-7657

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