Meria Carstarphen’s departure as chief of St. Paul Public Schools leaves the top slot at one of Minnesota’s high-profile districts empty. But while superintendents in the Minneapolis, St. Paul or Anoka-Hennepin districts may be high-profile, the requirements of superintendents are the same across the state.
All superintendents need to hold a doctorate or equivalent degree from an accredited university. All must have served at least three years as classroom teachers. All must serve at least 320 hours as an administrative aide before they get their administrator’s license. These requirements are true for superintendents in St. Paul or in the MACCRAY district.
While the superintendent in St. Paul may have a bigger stage, the problems are just as complex in a small, rural district like Wabasso Public Schools.
“The biggest difference between St. Paul and here is that the chief executive is supposed to be visionary and provide leadership and set the direction and delegate,” said Ted Suss, superintendent in Wabasso. “But we don’t have anyone to delegate to.”
Suss outlined a series of duties that would exhaust any of his urban or suburban contemporaries, or any of the critics who say superintendents aren’t worth their salary: Since his district of 400 students has no principals, Suss sits in on all staff meetings and sits on every committee in the district; he conducts all job interviews and is the district presence at most IEP meetings; he is the curriculum and instruction director and is in contact with the Minnesota Department of Education to help his committee refresh the math curriculum, after which he will buy the texts; he is the chief of transportation so it’s his job if a route needs to be added or changed; while he has a head custodian, Suss acts as the physical plant manager – “If there’s a leak in the roof, I call the contractor and get up on the roof and push back the rock to look at the membrane,” he said. He said Wabasso is lucky to have an experienced business manager so he can delegate insurance issues and revenue projections to him.
Greg Schmidt, superintendent of the 700-student MACCRAY district, provided a list similar to Suss’, then said “we have to provide leadership, not just management. It’s too easy to get caught up in the grunt work.”
And yet Schmidt said he likes the small district atmosphere. When some students missed the bus at the alternative learning center, he drove them home. “That’s something a larger district superintendent wouldn’t do,” he said. He is chaperoning a third-grade field trip to an area nature center. When the snow blows into the front door, it’s his job to shovel it out. When the “MACCRAY” sign fell down, he picked it up, took it home and he and his wife repainted it. “It’s not a job requirement as much as someone has to do it.”
Both Suss and Schmidt decried how political the job has become – certainly a view shared by big-city colleagues. The superintendent has to be more of a community ombudsman because of the enrollment strain open enrollment, charter schools and post secondary options put on students’ home school. “It’s more important now for families to feel more confident, so we engage in more public relations,” Suss said. Financing is more complicated, he added, and federal and state mandates are adding to the pressure. “If you spend all your time working on state reports, that’s time you’re not working on the math program,” he said.
While Carstarphen dealt with 2,600 teachers, 39,000 students and umpteen buildings and administrators, Schmidt has just as much to handle with 51 teachers and 710 students and Suss his 30 teachers and 421 students. Although Carstarphen probably never shoveled snow or examined a breached roof membrane, she, Suss and Schmidt both recognized that the crushing demands on their time and the increasing demands of the public are changing their jobs.
Rural superintendents tend to be a tight-lipped lot. A discussion about their worth led Schmidt to discuss cuts.
“The board is talking about cutting .5 principal position and myself and the other principal will fill in,” Schmidt said. “We cut the staff development position two years ago and the principals and I have taken up the slack. The quality isn’t there, but at least we still have the program.”
Suss ended by saying “Superintendents are doing more with less.”
Superintendents are highly trained business professionals who run, in effect, multi-million dollar businesses in the public trust. They face an even greater trust when parents send their children to them for educational opportunities. Minnesota’s kids deserve the best.