Richard Hyatt: Nothing strange about Muscogee County School District Superintendent Susan Andrews’ short tenure

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerMarch 18, 2012 

Susan Andrews provided unexpected fireworks on Monday when she kicked off School Board Appreciation Week by revealing plans to retire in July after three years as school superintendent.

Her announcement means that Muscogee County now faces the challenge of selecting its eighth superintendent in the past 22 years, starting the hiring process at a time when school administrators everywhere are being asked to do more with less.

The board’s regular meeting is Monday and it is expected to set the parameters for its superintendent search. Some members have already indicated they want to hire an outside firm to assist in the process just as they did in the hiring of two previous superintendents.

Both times the panel turned to Glenn Brock, a Cobb County attorney whose firm has overseen the hiring of new administrators in five of Georgia’s 10 largest school systems.

Board member John Wells, a 26-year veteran, called Andrews’ departure plans unusual. That makes no sense when you consider that on his watch one superintendent committed suicide and another was killed.

Andrews’ intentions are actually in line with most of her colleagues in other Georgia systems. Urban superintendents have an average tenure of just over two years. Smaller school districts keep their leaders a little longer, however.

Nationally there has been an upward trend. In 1999, the average tenure was 2.3 years but by 2010 that increased to 3.6 years.

Averages are only averages and two factors are impacting the time of service in Georgia.

Baby boomers such as Andrews are reaching retirement age and are finding the grass is greener outside the schoolhouse.

“Some of them are able to find other leadership positions outside of education and are able to supplement their retirement income,” says Jim Puckett of the Georgia School Board Association.

Herb Garrett of the Georgia School Superintendents Association couples age with the economic cutbacks that are overwhelming school districts.

“When economic times are brutal, people tend to think favorably about retirement,” he says. “They realize there is life after education.”

Both issues apply to Andrews.

At the age of 57, with more than 35 years of service in public education, she is fully vested in the Georgia Teacher Retirement System. Three years drawing her salary in Muscogee County sweetened her retirement check.

She talks about wanting more time to visit her grandchild in Arizona. If she changes her mind, she can contract out as a school consultant or she can cross the state line and take a full-time job in Alabama while continuing to draw her pension.

The former Harris County teacher and administrator emerged as one of three finalists for the Muscogee County job in 2009. She was selected over Felicia Mitchell of DeKalb County in Georgia and Faron Hollinger of Baldwin County in Alabama.

What no one could see coming was a loss of resources. School systems all over the region suffered the elimination of programs and the ensuing layoff of employees. These things strapped Andrews from the onset.

But her three-year tenure isn’t that different from her more recent predecessors. Though William Henry Shaw served from 1945 to 1973 and Braxton Nail had the job from 1973 to 1989, their stints are an anomaly.

Since Nail, the office has turned over rapidly.

Jim Burns, 1990 to 1992

Bob Bushong, 1992 to 1994

Jim Buntin, 1994-1996

Guy Sims, 1997 to 2001

John Phillips, 2002-2008

Susan Andrews, 2009 to 2012.

That is an average of 3.1 years.

Though many reasons have led to these individual changes, the most public reason has been conflicts between the elected school board and their appointed superintendent.

At the time Burns was killed in the doorway of his home in the Historic District, he was about to go before an angry board that intended to fire him.

Burns, who came from Alabama by way of Virginia, was portrayed as an outsider. However, internal choices such as Buntin and Sims also had rifts with the board. Less than a week after Andrews announced plans to step aside there is talk that she is at odds with some board members.

Whatever the reason for the turnover, school districts all over the state have recently been in the market for new superintendents. Thirty systems out of 180 have hired new leaders since 2011 and at least eight are looking right now. That doesn’t include searches in neighboring states.

Most boards are employing outside search firms. Some turn to state associations that offer assistance to local boards. Others are using private firms that often appear to be more aggressive. Unfortunately, there is no GPS to tell a board which road to take.

In the past, there was talk of considering non-educators for the job but that trend has slowed. A survey taken by the Council of Great City Schools indicates that 91 percent of the superintendents in the country had a K-12 background in 2010.

That same survey indicates that between 1999 and 2010, the number of white female superintendents rose from zero to 9 percent. There is no apparent movement reported toward black or Latino females.

But like every other school district, Muscogee County is praying for continuity. Short-term superintendents don’t have time to install programs that make a difference. Nor do they stay around long enough to increase test scores or establish meaningful reforms.

The local school board has experienced these things first hand, and it hasn’t been that long since the panel faced them the last time.

Once again the community will hear discussions about the merits of a nationwide search versus hiring from within. It will hear debates over race and gender and over what the pay for the new administrator should be. Hopefully, such subjects will be discussed in meetings the public can attend.

As always, the search is vital. But as Puckett points out, “All you need is one good candidate.”

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. He is also found at www.richardhyattcolumbus.com.

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