In Conversation With… features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation is with Dr. Dorothy “Dot” Perkins, Gallatin County Schools Superintendent since 2002, recipient of KSBA’s 2013 F. L. Dupree Award for Outstanding Superintendent and the outgoing president of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents. She discusses the causes of this year’s significant turnover in superintendents, the demands of the job, and qualifications.
Q: Kentucky school districts and those across the nation are seeing significant turnover among superintendents. Approximately 34 Kentucky superintendents have retired, resigned or been terminated this year. Do you see a pattern emerging in this turnover?
A: I do. Sadly, the pattern of superintendents retiring or resigning will continue until we reach some stability and all the initiatives that have been thrown at school districts, as well as our economy, stabilize. Being a superintendent is the toughest job in the district. The superintendent makes unpopular decisions that cut jobs, positions and programs that impact people. This can cause some unrest in a community and a school district. People get upset – parents get upset, board members get upset, the community at large gets upset.
I was at a LSAC (Local Superintendents Advisory Council) meeting recently where Ed McNeel, superintendent from Corbin Independent, explained that we are experiencing “KERA 2,” but this time there is no money to implement the reform. I think the economic recession, the shrinking budget, plus the increasing demands and expectations put on districts are contributing to the increasing number of superintendents retiring and resigning.
Superintendents, districts and boards of education are being asked to do more and more with less and less. We have a new core curriculum, new core content, new teacher and principal professional growth and effectiveness systems, a new accountability system, the new technology tool CIITS (Continuous Instructional Improvement Technology System)...we are utilizing the TELL (Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning) survey results. When you layer all these things on top of school districts’ own local initiatives such as the literacy and math design collaboratives, it is a lot, especially where there is no money to implement these things.
The superintendent’s job is 24/7 for 365 days a year. You are always on call and you never stop thinking about how to improve things in your district and what is best for your students. I think it is a perfect storm that is brewing for superintendents to resign or retire.
Q: As immediate past president of KASS, you have spoken with many superintendents this past year. Kentucky Senate Bill 1 mandates significant change reminiscent of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act. What concerns are superintendents expressing about how new changes are affecting their ability to do their jobs?
A: When you think back to 1990 when KERA came in, there was money to go with that reform initiative. Now that we are looking at Senate Bill 1, there is no money to go with this reform initiative. It is much different than it was back then.
For superintendents, it is a really grave concern that there is not the money necessary to do all the things we are being asked to do and to be able to do them well. Another thing I’ve heard from superintendents across our state is the need for a clear, concise understanding of all the expectations that schools are being asked to meet. Superintendents want to do the best job possible when they clearly understand what and why they are being asked to do something. There must be clear and concise communication from legislative leaders, KDE, board members, and community leaders about what is being required.
Q: What advice would you give to a school board about qualities to look for in a candidate to lead their school district?
A: I think they have to look for an individual who is passionate and committed to kids. That is No. 1. After that, the person must be passionate and committed to education. It is almost as if a superintendent is on a mission field and on a mission. A superintendent needs to be very positive, very resilient—one who can handle adversity and manage change or “continuous improvement.” He needs to have strength of character, perseverance, and a balance in life. Obviously, he or she has to be very creative to implement processes when they don’t have any money. They need to have a sense of humor, to be intelligent and to be forward-thinking.
Q: Ten to 15 years ago, it was not unusual for a school board to receive 20 to 30 applications for a superintendent vacancy. Today, the numbers may be half that. Is there a critical shortage of people preparing to become superintendents today?
A: I do believe there is a critical shortage of leadership throughout our country at all levels and in all areas. Yes, I do believe there is a critical superintendent leadership shortage in Kentucky and nationwide. I read an article recently that said the job of superintendent is “the toughest job in a community.” I believe that it is the least understood job in America. You are responsible for the achievement of every child in every school. In many communities, the school district is one of the largest employers; manages the largest transportation department; manages the largest food service department that cooks and serves more people than all the restaurants in the community combined; and oversees the largest facilities construction projects in the community. Most people don’t understand the things that happen behind the scenes to keep the school district running every day.
Q: Your career is unusual in that you are a product of the Gallatin County Schools—a student, a teacher, an assistant principal, and an administrator prior to being selected as superintendent 12 years ago. Should districts be nurturing their own to assume top leadership positions?
A: I believe that if you have a superintendent candidate within your district who exhibits the qualities you want for your district, he or she deserves a hard and honest look. Normally, that person is vested in your schools and community. That person has established beneficial relationships that will help in the job and will probably know where all the skeletons are, the problems and the pitfalls. If the board likes what is going on in the district and wants to keep that train on the track, then it would be a great opportunity to hire from within. If you don’t like the direction of the district, you are probably going to have to bring someone in. But, you have to understand that there is going to be that learning curve that the individual on the inside would not have.
Q: What is the most important advice you would give to someone who is becoming a superintendent for the first time?
A: I say this to aspiring superintendents all the time, that you have to realize when you are the superintendent, you are the superintendent all of the time. Not only are you the superintendent, but your family is the superintendent, too – 24/7, 365 days a year you are on the job. On vacation or on the weekend, you will still get calls, texts or emails on issues on which you have to be informed. You have to realize you are not going to make everybody happy. If you keep kids first in every decision you make, that is the most important thing. You have to be ready to be the topic at the dinner table, of the church sermon, at the grocery store. And, now on Facebook…with sometimes anonymous comments about you, your family and your decisions. You have to be ready to deal with this. Also, I tell all the superintendents I talk to that they have to take care of themselves and their health in order to be able to take care of the district.
Q: What do you think about the new superintendent evaluation that is around the corner?
A: It will be based on standards and it will be based on research and on best practices. I think that is a positive. I think the biggest concern right now is how to educate superintendents in this process as well as educate board members about the evaluation process. Obviously, there is a need when you look at some of the situations that superintendents have gotten themselves into the past year or two in regard to finance, contracts and lack of contracts, and board authority. So, there needs to be some training on evaluation of superintendents. It just makes common sense that if we are changing the teacher and principal evaluation systems, it is time for change in the accountability with superintendents as well. I think there is a lot of work in educating everyone yet to be done.
Q: How can we encourage more people to aspire to become superintendents?
A: We have to recognize and appreciate existing superintendents for the great work they are doing. How superintendents are treated sends a strong signal to others on how they can expect to be treated and of their expectations. I often tell board of education members that how they treat their superintendents is a message that is sent throughout their districts to others. We have to look at how we talk about superintendents. I realize that it is a tough time in some districts with some things that have happened. But, that brush should not be used to paint every superintendent who is working very hard to move his or her district forward and to do what is right for kids.