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(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) State Superintendent Martell Menlove said Wednesday he believes SB271 will allow education leaders to establish a school grading system somewhat reflective of UCAS, the system designed by the State Office of Education.
Can Utah slow state education superintendent turnover?
Education » Most schools bosses last no more than five years in high-pressure position.
First Published Oct 15 2012 01:01 am • Last Updated Jan 14 2013 11:31 pm

Surrounded by smiles and applause, Martell Menlove accepted the job last week as Utah’s top school boss in a scene that some say plays out all too often: a new superintendent stepping in every few years.

Being the state’s No. 1 education official certainly is a heavy load, with 41 school districts, about 1,000 schools, nearly 600,000 students and the nation’s lowest per-pupil spending. But, in light of outgoing Superintendent Larry Shumway’s retirement after a little more than three years on the job, some education leaders are searching for ways to make the post more attractive for the long haul.

At a glance

State superintendent tenures

In Utah, most state superintendents haven’t lasted more than five years, though a few have persisted for 12 to 15. Here’s a list of past superintendents and how long they’ve served, not including temporary superintendents.

Larry Shumway: 2009 to 2012

Patti Harrington: 2004 to 2009

Steven O. Laing: 1999 to 2004

Scott W. Bean: 1992 to 1999

Jay B. Taggart: 1990 to 1992

James R. Moss: 1986 to 1990

Bernarr S. Furse: 1985 to 1986

G. Leland Burningham: 1982 to 1985

Walter D. Talbot: 1970 to 1982

T.H. Bell: 1963 to 1970

Marion G. Merkley: 1962 to 1963

Wilburn N. Ball: 1961 to 1962

E. Allen Bateman: 1945 to 1960

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Debra Roberts, state school board chairwoman, said it would be nice to see superintendents stay for five to eight years.

"Anything below five, it’s hard," Roberts said, "because you want to create a long-term strategic plan. But these poor superintendents just get worn out because the pressure is so intense."

It’s an issue for other school board members as well. During public interviews for the job on Oct. 8, board member Keith Buswell asked Menlove if the job was one he could see himself doing for "some time" or "a couple years."

Menlove, who is now deputy state superintendent, responded that he must work within the state’s public education system until he’s at least 65 to reap the full retirement benefits. Menlove is now 60.

"I think I still have energy," Menlove told the board members. "I think I still have drive."

Those are two elements former state superintendents say he’ll need to last in the post.

A tough job everywhere » The stints superintendents serve is hardly a problem unique to the Beehive State. In fact, recent Utah superintendents have actually bested the U.S. average.


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Nationally, state superintendents tend to last about two years in the job, said Chris Minnich, senior membership director for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"It’s a tough job. These are hard positions," Minnich said. "It’s a pretty intense experience, and that’s why we see, I think, a short tenure."

Minnich said state superintendents face a range of challenges, including the implementation of new Common Core academic standards and tests to reflect them.

For the past couple of years, Shumway has headed efforts to implement the standards, all the while defending them against attacks from some conservative groups and lawmakers. He’s also had to deal with severe budget cuts because of the economic downturn.

Shumway, 58, has declined to detail why he decided to retire, saying it just seemed like the right time. But, he acknowledged, "it’s been a hard time to be state superintendent because resources have been so scarce."

Past Utah superintendents also faced challenges. Steven O. Laing, who served as superintendent for five years between 1999 and 2004, was in power when No Child Left Behind, a highly controversial school-accountability system, became law. Laing now works as a clinical associate professor at Utah State University.

Shumway’s predecessor, Patti Harrington, who also held the post for five years, from 2004 to 2009, was at the wheel when the fight over private-school vouchers dominated Utah politics. Harrington now works for the Utah School Boards Association and Utah School Superintendents Association.

Roberts said such struggles can be real challenges for superintendents as well as the state board.

"The time of the voucher fight was miserable because instead of really being able to step back and look at good sound educational principles, everything was caught up in this battle," said Roberts, who has served on the board for nearly 10 years. "It just really overwhelmed our time, our energy. I felt like we lost a year of progress fighting that battle."

Enticing them to stay » Still, none of those three superintendents points to such controversies as reasons they left.

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