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Hudson Valley News

Report Shows High Turnover Among HV School Superintendents

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A not-for-profit policy and planning organization in the Hudson Valley is out with a report that reveals a high turnover rate for school superintendents in the region.

Many students returned to school this week, many to schools with relatively new superintendents. Newburgh-based Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress this week released a report entitled “The Spin We’re In: High Turnover in School Superintendents Impacts Districts,” drawing its conclusions on data collected on all 122 districts throughout nine counties in the Hudson Valley. Pattern Vice President Barbara Gref is the report’s author.

“What is the impact of this on districts?” Gref says. “And it is that rather disturbing idea that a superintendent who is not on the job  for really more than five years, ideally longer, can’t get to the goals that are being set in the district and that the community, the parents, the students, expect and need.”

The report finds that the vast majority, 75 percent, of Hudson Valley school superintendents – 91 – have been in their current posts for five years or less. And of all Hudson Valley superintendents, including interims, 21 superintendents have been in their current posts for nine months or less.

Robert Lowry is spokesman for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, and notes there are more than 690 school districts in the state.

“I would say that the turnover rate, this 75 percent that the report finds for the Hudson Valley region, is higher than the state as a whole,” says Lowry.

He addresses why this might be.

“And I think there’s been a sad step, there’s been a higher level of contentiousness over education policy and school funding in this region than in other parts of the state,” Lowry says. “And, again, that makes the job of the leader more difficult.”

The job pressures come from the state and federal levels via mandates, the 2 percent property tax cap, school boards, community members, teachers, the controversial Common Core educational standards, teacher evaluations and other factors. Only 13 superintendents have been serving in their current posts for 10 years or longer. Dr. Richard Hooley is one. He has been the Valley Central School District's superintendent for 12 years.

“The reasons to leave are that it is almost an impossible job at this point,” says Hooley.

He says years of building relationships and a track record do help, but the work is demanding.

“I think for anybody it is a pretty overwhelming job,” says Hooley. “And, I’ll just be honest with you, I can’t do the job unless I work part of my day on Sunday.”

In Dutchess County, Rhinebeck Central School District Superintendent Joseph Phelan is starting his 17th year in the position.

“The challenges have been much more manageable and dealing with them has been much more satisfying than it might have been in a different community where I had a [school] board that I had difficulty working with or a community that was not supporting opportunities for children,” says Phelan.

Both he and Hooley say the last 5-7 years have been considerably more difficult than the years prior because of mandates and the other previously mentioned factors.

Hooley attributes his longevity with his school district in Orange County to a few reasons.

“Having been here for 12 years there’s many, many things that make the job a little bit easier,” Hooley says. “You know your community, arguably you know your community better, you know the personalities of the people in your community, whether they are employees or just members of the tax-paying community, and you have a sense about what people think and what they like and what they don’t like and so that makes it easier.”

Gref says the turnover rate favors no particular county or region, something that surprised her. She did not expect the following data from Putnam County, for example.

“Of their six districts four of them have been in their jobs for less than a year. That’s one of the biggest surprises here. I thought looking at the data that we would see, oh Columbia, Sullivan, Greene, the northern counties were going to suffer the most because they have fairly unattractive salaries for that big job,” says Gref. “As it turns out, it is all over the place. And Westchester, which is the highest paying county on average, is seeing just as much or more than some of the more rural places in the region.”

The report makes several recommendations, including for some districts to share superintendents. Lowry is not a fan of that idea, in general.

“I say it’s illogical because if you’re saying the job has become more difficult, and we’re offering this as a solution, well, how is it a solution to make a difficult job twice as difficult by having the same person try to lead two districts,” says Lowry. “Again, there are 690-plus school districts in the state. There are places where it can work, but it doesn’t seem like it’s a real solution to the problems that the report identifies.”

He says the idea of a combined district may be more practical, which Pattern also recommends. Another report recommendation is to increase the amount of training for school board members.

The report is available on Pattern’s web site at www.pattern-for-progress.org

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