Lawmakers shoot down option of electing school superintendents to slow revolving door

While his remedy may be wrong, Sen. John Wilkinson cited a real problem with the revolving door of school chiefs in Georgia districts.

The House Education Committee rebuffed a Senate-led initiative Thursday to give Georgia counties the option to elect their local school superintendents who are now appointed by school boards.

Senate Resolution 192 – which would require a statewide referendum — would revive a prior state policy that allowed districts the choice of electing their school chiefs or appointing them. In counties that opted to elect their superintendents, grand juries named school board members.

Georgia voters rejected the practice in 1992 when they approved a constitutional amendment mandating elected school boards and appointed superintendents. The resolution’s sponsor, state Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, argued the switch to appointed school chiefs has yielded few positive results, leading instead to costly national candidate searches, inflated salaries and shorter tenures as rootless superintendents pick up and go when they get a better offer.

“There is no research that shows student achievement is better where there’s an appointed superintendent than where there is an elected superintendent.” said Wilkinson, adding that the promised benefits of appointed school chiefs — higher achievement and longer tenures — never materialized.

Under the old system of elections, Georgia superintendents averaged eight years in the job, he said, pointing out, “The average tenure of a school superintendent in Georgia right now is less than three years.”

While Wilkinson’s remedy may be extreme and cumbersome — running for election and re-election every four years would divert superintendents from their important jobs of leading schools — the north Georgia senator points out the very real problem of leadership turnover in school districts. DeKalb County has had five superintendents in the past decade. Since 2005, Fulton’s had five school chiefs and Cobb’s had three. Clayton has had four school chiefs since 2008 and is now reviewing applications to hire a new one this summer.

I have seen school boards put all their faith in newly recruited miracle workers from out-of-state who never seem to unpack their suitcases because they’re always ready to jump to the next big opportunity. There’s a cost to that revolving door. In the 2010 report, “Learning from Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning,” the authors wrote: “One of the most serious threats to stability in a school district is frequent turnover in the ranks of superintendents, principals, and vice principals. Instability at the school level often reflects a failure of management at the district level.”

A former teacher who spent 26 years with the Georgia Department of Education overseeing agricultural education programs, Wilkinson said his own father was an elected superintendent. “There used to be a time when the school superintendent grew up in the community. He was president of the Little League. He or she attended the Kiwanis Club,” he said. “They lived here. They went to the church here.”

House members heard from many education groups opposed to Wilkinson’s plan, but lawmakers had their own deep doubts as well, reflected in the 17-to-1 vote against the resolution. Recalling the period when his county elected school chiefs, state Rep. Howard Maxwell, R-Dallas, said, “It was a beauty contest or a popularity contest. We had some poor superintendents as a result.”

“It appears we try to take a statewide approach sometimes trying to resolve smaller problems where it might be one or two or three counties,” said state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R-Douglas “I have heard from a number of people..their question to me is why, Dominic? We kind of like the way it is working down here.”

Wilkinson said he had to involve every county because the referendum 25 years ago was statewide and forced his community, which wanted to maintain an elected superintendent, to change to an appointed one, telling the House committee, “I just think the people deserve an option and they don’t have that right now.”

Reader Comments 0

19 comments
William1952
William1952

When looking for a new superintendent, I think the elected board of education should pare the candidates down to two. Then, flip a coin to determine which of the two would be hired. It wouldn't make much difference anyway. Why? Because the elected board members would be at the board office or school every day micromanaging.

E Pluribus Unum
E Pluribus Unum

I'm not sure how people can 

come to the conclusion that

public schools in Georgia

are not accountable. 

Numerous state tests, 

public scrutiny on the local

and national level, charter

schools offering parents other

options, school consolidation

in some districts,state legislature

action, and school board elections

with debate on the direction that 

each local school board should

pursue for the district and 

surrounding community.


Starik
Starik

Why would we have the same structure for school governance in counties with around a million residents and small, rural counties with around two thousand?

Starik
Starik

Different world. Simple v. Complicated.

BurroughstonBroch
BurroughstonBroch

County governments work the same and elections work the same. Why should the method of determining a school superintendent be different?

72DCSD99
72DCSD99

".. running for election and re-election every four years would divert superintendents from their important jobs of leading schools  The point is taken here, but slightly disingenuous.  Politicians, sworn to work for all the people begin campaigning for the next election the day after they are elected.  Every President in memory has either been on the campaign trail for himself or for his party's pick for months and months prior to election.  It's the nature of the beast.

georgian55
georgian55

I agree with Senator Wilkinson. Now, most of the superintendents belong to the "good ole boy" network. As the senator pointed out, most stay for three years or less and then move on to their next superintendent job with another system, leaving behind the mess they created. I like the idea of having someone that grew up in the community and knowing the area leading the system. Most appointed superintendents are given three year contracts anyways, not much difference in an elected one who can be voted out after four years if not performing adequately. 

Astropig
Astropig

@georgian55


I agree and you make some great points,but sadly, I don't think that we'll see that sort of accountability system again anytime soon.The eduacracy has been moving further and further away from real accountability over the last couple of decades,so they'll fight this idea to the last ditch.The status quo looks out for itself first and foremost.

Harlequin
Harlequin

Ever try to hang out and reminisce in front of a Cracker Barrel? It isn't easy!

Harlequin
Harlequin

The way things are looking at the federal level if the public schools are to survive, there will have to be a return to localism.  

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Personally, I like the current system of elected school boards and appointed superintendents.  If your BOE is hiring duds as Superintendents, then you have an issue with your BOE.   Elect wisely, my friends.


Lack of succession planning and nationwide searches for school superintendents is a pet peeve of mine.  If your School Board and Superintendent are doing their jobs, there is absolutely no reason to go outside the district for a replacement superintendent.  If they have no confidence in the ability of 2-3 of the Deputy Superintendent's ability to step up to the Superintendent's job, then voters need to be asking why.


Whenever Gwinnett's Wilbanks steps down, it will be interesting to see how they handle this issue.



AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

School boards are elected and choose the superintendent. There is your accountability to the voter.

time for reform
time for reform

Interesting that teachers' unions opposed this idea. Did they conclude school board members are easier to buy?

Astropig
Astropig

@time for reform


The worst school superintendent that ever lived can hold his/her job by keeping just enough school board members happy to get a new contract.To heck with what the kids,parents,voters or other stakeholders want.


I agree with the legislators analysis above-When I attended school back in the 70's,we elected superintendents (this was in Tennessee,btw) and the super was invariably a local guy (almost always a guy),he had been a teacher forever,risen up through the ranks as a principal and usually had a very long tenure in the system.He knew everybody,they knew him.He had deep roots in the community he served.He was almost universally respected and in some cases,loved by the parents.They knew him on a first name basis and were not embarrassed to bring items to his attention.Likewise, they had no resentments when he retired to Florida for his elder years.They wished him well.


That's certainly not the case in a lot of places today.I'm sure that a fairly high number of parents couldn't even name their kids school superintendent.

BurroughstonBroch
BurroughstonBroch

@Astropig @time for reform  My experience in North Georgia during the 1960s was similar. One superintendent from post WW2 to late 1960s, then my high school principal became superintendent for the next 15 years. They both did a great job and provided continuity.