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OP-ED | The Thankless Job of School Superintendent

by Terry D. Cowgill | Oct 4, 2013 5:30am
(4) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

If you’re a classroom teacher, do me a favor and conduct a poll. Ask your students how many of them would like to lead a school district someday. I’m guessing no hands will go up. But if you press your students further, one or two of them might offer a maybe.

Why the low interest? It goes without saying that most kids won’t admit they want to go into education because teaching, which is the gateway to becoming a school administrator, is considered by adolescents to be a dorky profession. Thankfully, most kids change their minds as they mature and look back fondly at the dedicated teachers who helped them become what they are.

But you’d have to think there is another dynamic at work. School superintendents are often lightning rods for criticism and discontent in the districts they serve. From large urban systems to small rural districts, superintendents are public figures in their communities and, though they’re well compensated compared to the general population, there is considerable stress attached to the job.

According to the American Association of School Administrators, the average tenure of a public school superintendent is about seven years. But in very large and very small districts — of which we have many of both in Connecticut — the longevity is only about three years.

While the job security of superintendents is in short supply, there is no shortage of public opinion about their performances. Superintendents who make controversial decisions — and that’s most of them — should be prepared for harsh words in public meetings, blogs, social media, and letters to the editor. Sometimes, the criticisms are a result of honest policy differences. But often, these thinly veiled attacks obscure a larger political agenda.

Nowhere is that principle better illustrated than in case of Bridgeport Superintendent Paul Vallas. A former superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, Vallas is obviously qualified to lead Bridgeport’s system, which is far smaller than any of his three earlier gigs. But he’s under attack for lacking the proper superintendent’s certification.

A state Superior Court ruled in July that Vallas did not fulfill the legal requirements for the certification waiver he had been granted earlier. An appeal is being heard by the state Supreme Court and Vallas’ job will hang in the balance.

Vallas may or may not have done a good job in his previous posts — and, as his critics have pointed out, there is evidence pointing to poor performance — but the notion that he is unqualified to lead Bridgeport’s schools after heading three of the largest systems in the nation is ludicrous on its face. No, it’s pretty clear that those who oppose Vallas, including a growing number on the Bridgeport Board of Education, aren’t motivated by his lack of an 093 credential issued by the Connecticut Department of Education. They simply don’t like his policies or his personality.

And they really don’t like that, after a questionable state takeover of the Bridgeport schools, Vallas was invited to the superintendency by his friend, state education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, who was hired by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is now widely despised by Connecticut teachers because of disparaging remarks he made about their profession.

Superintendents often get fired because of a change in board composition, as might happen to Vallas this November even if he survives his court challenge. Others who come in headstrong to lead struggling districts face open revolts from faculty and are chased out of town. On the other hand, after only two years, Hartford Superintendent Christina Kishimoto is under fire for not proceeding fast enough with change. The city’s highest paid employee at $231,000 per year, Kishimoto replaced Steve Adamowski, who went on to become “special master” of two struggling urban Connecticut districts and is now taking heat for his high salary and lack of results.

One superintendent in Windsor Locks, David Telesca, was fired three years ago after posting a boneheaded Facebook update about his first day on the job.

In the sprawling Region One School District, which covers much of the state’s rural northwest corner, the superintendent and her assistant have become deeply unpopular amid a series of administrative resignations, allegations of bullying, a power struggle among the faculty, a dysfunctional school board, and a public eager for change. The superintendent’s secretary has sued her for retaliation and assault, while the assistant superintendent has sued a board member for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Meanwhile, the district is operating on last year’s spending package because six budget referenda in a row have failed. Taxpayers are essentially holding the budget hostage until the superintendent and her supporters on the board are sent packing.

While being a school chief might be a better job than selling cars, most kids will take a pass on it — and for good reason. Given the insecurity and turmoil associated with the position, are we really attracting the best people? A common quip heard in faculty lounges is, “Those who can’t teach become administrators.” I’ll paraphrase Waylon Jennings instead: “Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be superintendents.”

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill blogs at and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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(4) Comments

posted by: Historian | October 4, 2013  7:05am

What used to be a fairly simple administrative job of maintaining buildings and standardized operations have become a focal point of parent’s greed for academic and athletic success for their children - an situation pushed into the extremes of getting into a “good” college and career. 
  Pay packages are pushing a quarter of a million a year and tenures are shortning as parental and union expectations demand a new line up if academic,etc statistics, do not reach star status.
  As a result superintendents demand, and get, larger budgets and new programs to “improve education with the latest code words and tests. 
  For what?  There is no evidence students are “smarter” than 20 or more years ago. They use a lot of new buzz words and many more go to college but none of that means the new workers are out producing the competition in China, India, etc.
  In addition our country is in a constant economic, military and security crisis without even an occasional plateau or rest in sight. What is the end game?

posted by: Art Vandelay | October 4, 2013  7:45am

How true!  Well written.

posted by: Barth Keck | October 4, 2013  11:22am

“Thankless”, indeed! Countless critics now complain how “overpaid” superintendents are and how “top-heavy” school districts have become. As I see it, superintendents are underpaid and school administrations are understaffed, considering the burgeoning mandates, unrealistic expectations, and immense fiscal responsibilities facing the institutions they lead. By comparison, executives and CEOs of institutions with similar budgets and staffs are paid more than the average superintendent.

Public education, simply, is a complex, unpredictable, expensive, and ever-changing endeavor that will never be able to please all of its vastly divergent stakeholders. So you’re right, Terry. Not only would most of my students NOT want to be a superintendent; I wouldn’t either.

posted by: ABC | October 4, 2013  12:26pm

Historian - “parents greed” for academic success for their children?  That’s a new one.  So parents now shouldn’t be doing all in their power to raise their children to be as successful as they can be? 

Heretofor I have not seen even the most radical pro-union, anti-accountability leftists dare to criticize parents for trying to do what is best for their kids.  Am I misinterpreting your post?  Please expound upon your fascinating philosophy!