Can Utah slow state education superintendent turnover?

Published October 15, 2012 10:45 am

Education • Most schools bosses last no more than five years in high-pressure position.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

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.

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.

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.

Harrington and Laing said it was a combination of things, including timing. It's a job people tend to take on toward the end of their careers in education.

Harrington called the position "a surprise a minute" and said, for her, retiring became partly a matter of wanting to let someone with fresh energy lead the next phase of change, including the Common Core.

"The Common Core was just beginning, and I also knew it needed a lot of strength behind it, and I knew I didn't have that many more years in me," Harrington said. "There comes a point where you say, 'How much energy can I still give this?' "

Roberts recently asked Harrington, Shumway and Laing what could be done to keep superintendents on board longer.

Harrington said her only recommendation was to continue to encourage board members to work side by side with superintendents at the Capitol during the legislative session to garner wide support for education.

Laing had a slightly different take. He said board members should be more specific and assertive about the exact role they want the superintendent to take.

"I am not confident the superintendent can please both the providers of K-12 education (the districts, superintendents and local boards) and the political powers (governors and legislatures)," Laing wrote in an email to Roberts. "I believe the board would need to clearly specify the role for its executive officer that it (board) believes the superintendent should fill."

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Laing said it would help if board members recognized the power of their positions — as elected officials who represent larger constituencies than lawmakers.

Roberts said it's advice the board will take to heart.

Is money an issue? • The board is also taking seriously at least one of Laing's other recommendations: pay.

Pay is not a primary issue for state superintendents, Laing said, "but it ought to be fair and it ought to be comparable to the degree of responsibility and expectation on the position."

Shumway makes $183,454 a year, before benefits.

To the average Utahn, that may seem like a whopping paycheck, but it's actually less than some district superintendents make. And it's not the highest or lowest in the nation. The Indiana superintendent, for example, makes less than $80,000 a year and the Mississippi superintendent earns more than $300,000 a year.

Superintendents are often paid differently, depending on how they come to the position. Mississippi's superintendent was appointed and Indiana's elected.

In Utah, the state school board appoints superintendents.

Roberts said the board had hoped to pay Shumway more but couldn't because he held the spot during an economic slump.

The board, however, didn't want to make the same mistake twice, she said, and has committed to pay Menlove $200,000 a year before benefits — a raise, but still less than some district superintendents earn.

Even so, those who take on the position of state superintendent generally don't do it for the money. Harrington said state superintendents take the job for much the same reason they became teachers in the first place: to influence lives.

And Laing said, in the end, there's only so much the board can do to make the position easier on whoever fills it.

"Regardless of what the board does, it's still going to be a high-pressure, high-stress job," Laing said, "just because there are so many competing interests."

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker —

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