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NSBA, AASA execs worry about board member, superintendent turnover, impact on districts

When Tom Gentzel and Dan Domenech have a dialogue, it harkens back to the movie, “Holiday Inn.” That establishment opened only on holidays, but it was worth being there when it did. With a collective 62 years working with school boards and superintendents, NSBA Executive Director Gentzel and Domenech, his counterpart with American Association of School Administrators, gave a Saturday clinic audience a wealth of stories mixed with experience-based insights. It was a refreshed conversation they share twice each year, most recently at last month’s AASA conference in San Diego.

In an unscripted exchange, both association execs voiced concerns about the impact of turnover among school leaders.

“One of the things we are very concerned with is that we are seeing a lot of turnover of superintendents around the country, and not necessarily in those districts we might traditionally think of where there has been a revolving door,” said Domenech, “but rather in high-functioning school districts. That’s disturbing. If we are to build high-functioning districts, you need the continuity of leadership.

“When you have a situation of a board dismissing a superintendent when things are fine simply because you have a new board that comes in and decides to make a change, that’s going to create a lag for that district before it can resume moving forward. We have to recognize the importance of stability in the superintendency,” he said.

Both men acknowledged that there are board/superintendent situations where change is necessary. Gentzel offered an analogy.

“If you drive a car that’s not in alignment, if you’re lucky, it will get you where you want to go, but it’s annoying and you waste a lot of energy and time,” he said. “When boards and superintendents are not aligned, it can be a disaster. At the very least, it’s waste a lot of time and energy.”

Domenech agreed.

“When we see districts where the superintendency is a revolving door in the district, when we see the board is in a revolving door, we tend to see districts that are dysfunctional and not providing the kind of education we want for our kids. We feel it’s very important that they recognized this and get trust and respect in what they do,” said the former superintendent of 27 years in four districts.

According to AASA research, the average tenure of an urban district superintendent in America is three years; in suburban and rural districts, it’s six years. Other research has produced similar results for school board members.

Gentzel said board turnover has its own cost to districts.

“Board members I’ve talked to over the years tell them it took two to three years before they got their stride. There’s a lot to learn. It takes a while for board members to be really effective, there is a learning curve,” said the former executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. “One of the things we lost with turnover is people aren’t spending time together to get to know your fellow board members.”

Both men stressed the value of relationships, using terms like “vital” and “critical” in their messages.

“The board and the superintendent really must operate as a team,” Domenech said. “When we see boards and superintendent working together, we see districts that do the right thing.”

And Gentzel concluded that relationship doesn’t always mean complete agreement on every item.

“You’re not dysfunctional if you disagree. You’re dysfunctional if you can’t make a decision,” he said. “Disagreement can be healthy if it’s done in the right environment.”

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