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Can Utah slow state education superintendent turnover?
Education » Most schools bosses last no more than five years in high-pressure position.


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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.

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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"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.


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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."

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