Revolving door of school superintendent openings hurts districts

Jessica Scarpati

Manthala George, then Brockton’s school superintendent, addressed a sea of graduating seniors in 1994, the year he retired.

George fondly reminded them he had entered Brockton schools to work the same time they did to learn, as first-graders.

Brockton school chiefs who followed him, including outgoing five-year Superintendent Basan Nembirkow, never saw that educational life cycle through again.

“We had this period of time where we had what we called the revolving door of superintendency,” said Susan Szachowicz, principal of Brockton High School.

The “revolving door” notion is a perception districts have long fought, but experts say a recent surge in school superintendent turnovers is real — and worsening — in Massachusetts.

Districts experiencing it this year include Brockton, Bridgewater-Raynham, Stoughton, East Bridgewater, Plymouth and Silver Lake Regional.

Superintendents say they get burnt out from the growing demands of the job, its trying hours and the political work it has come to include.

With a half-dozen local districts in transition, approaching it or in its wake, experts say there’s a reason for parents to worry about this.

“It creates instability and a lack of continuity within the district, and that’s detrimental to the whole education process,” said Peter Cannone, a former Cape Cod school chief who teaches educational leadership at Bridgewater State College.

That “instability” can trickle down to the classroom, said Szachowicz, a former teacher.

“It’s hard,” she said. “You want to carry out what the schools are supposed to do, but you hesitate.

“What if the next person is not in favor of that? There’s a sense of uncertainty,” she added. “You’re always nervous.”

In 2006, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents found the average tenure for that position was 5.2 years.Last year, the average dropped to 4.8 years.

“Through the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, it was common to stay on 14 to 18 years,” said Paul Andrews, director of professional development and government services for the association.

In the last two to three years, the group has seen 50 to 60 superintendent vacancies, as opposed to perhaps a dozen a year previously.

The Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District is seeing its fourth changeover in five years with the expected hiring of Jacqueline Forbes, a superintendent from East Providence, R.I., who is in contract negotiations.

Parents in the district, surprised by the turnover rate, said they know this is something that should spark their concern. But in the midst of packing lunches and checking homework, what happens at the school administrative level often doesn’t land on their radar.

“For my day-to-day living, no, it really doesn’t make a difference,” said Kelly Greenlee, of Raynham, who has a 6-year-old daughter and 9-year-old twin boys.

“But I think it makes a difference overall, of course, in decisions that are made about the classroom,” she added.

Leslie Thurber, also of Raynham, said that as a former teacher in Milton, she knows the impact of superintendent changeover. But most parents, she guessed, likely see superintendents as a distant figure.

“They’re more concerned with who their child has as a teacher, who has direct day-to-day contact with the children,” said Thurber, whose three children are in elementary school.

There is also a cost in dollars and cents. The search for a new superintendent isn’t cheap.

“Districts can pay anywhere up to $20,000 to $30,000,” said Cannone, the Bridgewater State College professor, who consults districts for superintendent searches. Just posting a job in various employment venues can cost up to $7,000, he said.

“When you’re looking for a superintendent now, it’s an actual search,” said Cannone, who worked on the hunt for a new Bridgewater-Raynham school chief.

Tough job to fill

Despite all the effort and expense, superintendent jobs just aren’t being filled, onlookers say.

“It’s a complex, demanding position,” said Robert O. McIntyre, former school chief for Bridgewater-Raynham. “You have budget limits, state and federal mandates, contracts — a lot of things that make it difficult.”

Superintendents are often expected to be at community events and meetings after work, making 60- to 70-hour work weeks common.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” said Andrews, of the state association. “You’re never not the superintendent.”

In addition to expanding societal expectations for the role of schools, the state Educational Reform Act of 1993 added a new level of accountability for superintendents, especially with student performance measured by MCAS scores.

“Prior to ed reform, no superintendent ever lost his job for the performance or lack thereof of his students,” said Nembirkow, of Brockton.

Jessica Scarpati can be reached at