TRAVERSE CITY — So you want to be the superintendent of a K-12 public school district in Michigan?
Welcome to a job that requires 60 to 80 hours of work per week with 10- to 12-hour shifts for at least six of those seven days. Your daily building visits and classroom drop-ins will be followed by seemingly endless board and committee meetings or heading off to athletic events and student plays after work every day.
You’ll have to keep a happy workforce with union contracts that are favorable to both the employees and the district, meet with community members and stakeholders about district business and — in the few minutes you have in your office — try to balance a budget and increase student achievement in a state that is in the bottom quartile of both funding and performance.
“There’s a definite need for people who want to take on this responsibility,” said Lee Sandy, interim superintendent at Kalkaska Public Schools. “You’ve got to listen to people, and sometimes that means you change your opinion and sometimes that means you don’t.”
That’s not always an easy task.
Holding the top administration post at small districts and large districts each come with their own unique set of challenges and stressors. Superintendents in large districts are placed under a microscope and scrutinized for every decision. And leaders in small districts often often are required to be the superintendent, principal, business manager and bus driver.
Some school leaders say that’s why tenure for the top leaders hovers between two and five years, depending on the measure used.
A Career In Flux
Nick Ceglarek was the youngest superintendent in Michigan when he took over Baldwin Community Schools at age 29 in 2002.
Eighteen years later, Ceglarek holds the top position at Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, where he oversees 16 K-12 public school districts — including Kalkaska — in a five-county region of northern Michigan.
During his time in Baldwin, Ceglarek had Sandy, who retired in 1997, by his side as the interim high school principal. He leaned on the education veteran’s vast knowledge and experience to guide him through the perils and pitfalls of leading a district.
“He is an amazing man and a great leader,” Ceglarek said of Sandy. “Of anyone in the state of Michigan, I think he might have the most tenure and the most different districts as a superintendent.”
Ceglarek isn’t exaggerating.
Sandy also is the superintendent at Vanderbilt Area Schools, although he works there just one day per week. He laughed when asked how many districts he has served as superintendent — regular or interim.
“I’d have to count ’em,” he said before rattling off Alpena, Pine River, Forest Area (when it was Fife Lake), Au Gres, Leland, Onekama, Kalkaska and Fairview.
“Is that enough?” Sandy said with a chuckle.
The superintendent waters of the TBAISD have been roiling with turnover during the past five years. Close to 20 superintendent changes have occurred in 13 of the 16 districts.
Four of the districts now are relying on interim superintendents — including Kalkaska, Elk Rapids Public Schools (which has had two interims since Stephen Prissel left in 2018), Leland Public Schools and Traverse City Area Public Schools. That number was five until Feb. 1 when Casey Petz took over for interim Superintendent Mike Carmean at Suttons Bay Public Schools.
“It’s a combination of making sure that you have someone with experience leading the district during the time of transition and not being able to get the candidate pool that the board needs to feel comfortable making a decision on a permanent superintendent,” Ceglarek said.
Ceglarek also referred to Jon Hoover’s situation at Glen Lake Community Schools. Hoover is one of seven superintendents in the TBAISD who are retired, a group that includes TCAPS interim Superintendent Jim Pavelka.
Pavelka said there isn’t much of a difference between an interim and a regular superintendent when it comes to the day-to-day operation of a district. The long-term planning, however, is a different story.
“I don’t want to be making the administrative structure changes because the next person that comes in will have to live with that for the next three to five years,” Pavelka said. “The tough part of the job is coming into the middle of a lot of it and activities that have already started.”
Pavelka took over at TCAPS from Ann Cardon, whose tenure lasted just 78 days before she resigned amid public outcry and controversy. In those 78 days, Cardon was one of just two female superintendents in the TBAISD along with Buckley Community Schools’ Jessica Harrand.
Although the education workforce is largely dominated by women, superintendent positions often are filled by men.
The latest data National Center for Education Statistics shows 77 percent of teachers, 52 percent of principals and 78 percent of central office workers are female, but less than 25 percent of superintendents are women and less than 10 percent are minorities, according to a 2019 survey from the American Association of School Administrators.
Salary data from the AASA also shows female superintendents earn 3 percent less than their male counterparts in a job that earns between $92,000 to $236,000 annually.
Ceglarek said there are “intentional things we can do to try and grow leadership within our schools that better represent the demographics in our schools.”
Pipeline Drying Up
Any intentional approach still might not be enough because of a larger issue at hand — a statewide teacher shortage.
The United States Department of Education released data that showed a 70 percent decrease in enrollment in teacher preparation programs between 2008 and 2017 in Michigan. The Michigan Department of Education also showed in 2017 that there had been a 63 percent decrease in teaching certificates issued since 2004.
That combined with a rapidly retiring Baby Boomer generation has left a “vacuum without enough people in the pipeline to fill it,” said Greg Sieszputowski, the director of leadership and executive search services for the Michigan Association of School Boards.
The traditional path to a superintendent job runs from teacher to principal to central office to assistant superintendent and then to the top post. The pool of qualified candidates for arguably the district’s most important position is drying up in the face of diminishing numbers of teachers entering districts.
“It’s like a domino effect,” Sieszputowski said.
Michigan is home to 587 public school districts, and the MASB is tracking 56 superintendent changes since July 1, 2019. Sieszputowski said about 25 percent of the superintendent positions in the state are regularly in a state of transition, which means about 150 school districts are looking to fill an open or interim superintendent position every year.
Pavelka remembers a time in the 1970s when districts would receive 100 applicants for an open superintendent job. That number, he said, dropped to between 60 and 70 in the ‘90s. Sieszputowski said the average now for an attractive position is between 25 to 30 applicants, not all of whom are qualified.
“It’s a huge commitment with a lot of stress and a lot of eyes on the position,” Sieszputowski said. “They ultimately have to answer for how the district performs.”
Tim Quinn is a former superintendent and the founder of the Michigan Leadership Institute, an organization that helps school districts find superintendent candidates, and the Michigan SUPES Academy, which offers a superintendent leadership program. He said attracting candidates from out of state is also “very, very rare,” contributing to the shallow pool of candidates.
Quinn said the state’s low commitment to funding and the low student performance keeps qualified applicants away. He said northern Michigan, especially, is a place where people either “begin their superintendency or end their superintendency.”
“You have a divided governance structure in the state as it relates to education,” Quinn said. “We have Democratic governor. We have a Republican legislature. We have a Democratic board of education. For them to reach agreement on something has been a major, major problem that they’ve struggled with.”
Steady At The Top
Those struggles and questions lead to instability at the superintendent position and, in turn, destabilizes school districts, some experts say.
Shelby McIntosh, at the TASA Midwinter Conference in 2019, said consistent leadership at the top leads to better and more engaged teachers. Better teachers lead to higher-performing students, McIntosh argues.
McIntosh said new superintendents need at least a year to “get the lay of the land in their district” and two to three years to “effectively earn the trust of the staff” and “build productive relationships.”
“Every time a new superintendent takes over, teachers have to adjust to new policies, goals and training initiatives,” McIntosh said. “If you work in a school district where leadership is constantly changing, it’s hard to stay engaged.”
So why are superintendents leaving just when they’re earning that trust and building those relationships? Sandy said it’s all about finding the right fit, and that takes some time to figure out. It comes down to the relationship with the board and the relationships within the community.
“It’s like a marriage, you’ll know when it’s not going to work,” Sandy said. “The honeymoon is about six months, but it takes about three years to learn where it’s really at.”
Ceglarek fits right into that three- to five-year range, having been in five districts in his 18 years as a superintendent. He said being a superintendent can be the best job but it can also be the most challenging.
“So much is out of your control,” Ceglarek said. “But it’s not just a job. It’s not just a career. It’s a way of life. You’re not allowed to leave work at the office. That’s why it’s so challenging.”
Sandy doesn’t believe in burnout, but he knows that sometimes there are issues a superintendent — whether an interim or not — simply cannot walk away from. The people who are built for the job, Sandy said, stay and face the problems.
“You get into education to help kids,” Sandy said. “If you’re going to do that, you’ve got to make the tough calls and you’ve got to realize that problems are our friends. That’s part of this life.”