Q&A Spotlight: Superintendent Headhunter

John Mooney | November 12, 2010 | Education
School board and salary are among a candidate's key questions -- as is location, location, location

At a time when school superintendent pay is all the talk in New Jersey, NJ Spotlight talks with William Attea, senior associate and chairman of the national school leadership search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. The Illinois-based firm has been conducting nationwide searches for more than two decades, including in scores of New Jersey districts, most recently in Marlboro, Moorestown, Westfield and Lawrence. It is now conducting a search in Livingston for an assistant superintendent.

Question: How does New Jersey rate when it comes to superintendent searches?

Answer: New Jersey is looked upon as an attractive place to work. You have some very good school districts, and we always get very good response. The one problem we have had in New Jersey is you have a pretty rigid certification system. The lack of reciprocity with other states is one thing. We really have to go through a superintendent’s certification closely.

Q: What are the key issues to a superintendent search?

A: Location, location, location. If they are looking for a suburban location, they’ll be attracted to a place like New Jersey with its high-quality schools. Maybe the first question I’m asked is how confidential is this search. Confidentiality is a key thing for an established superintendent. If we cannot assure confidentiality, many experienced superintendents will decline an invitation to consider a career move.

For instance, there is no confidentiality in Florida. Once a letter is opened in Florida, it is public information. In Illinois or New York or New Jersey, it can be totally confidential, and with that, the caliber of candidates is completely different.

Q: And the next question from prospects?

A: Tell me about the school board, do they know the difference between governance and management? How efficient are their meetings? Are they focused on end-results and not on every little thing?

Boards that don’t understand the big picture will eventually derail a superintendent as well as a district.

Q: That brings us to salaries. Gov. Chris Christie has proposed a cap that would limit base pay for most superintendents to $175,000 — dropping as low as $135,000, depending on enrollment. Have other states tried this?

A: When you cap salaries, you cut out a lot of experienced people. Among the inexperienced or the wannabes, it won’t matter as much.

The fact of the matter is the pool of really good superintendents is smaller than the 17,000 school districts across the country.

If you want mediocrity, they are out there and will continue to be. But if you want people who will really make a difference, this will hurt.

There are three things that affect a salary. One is what an individual is currently earning. Two, what is the going rate in the area? And three, what is the district willing to pay?

Minnesota instituted salary caps, where no superintendent would be paid more than the governor. At the time it was $103,000, when the average pay was about $140,000. And it was almost impossible to recruit good people from outside Minnesota.

Those inside the state knew how to work the system and get around it. A number received additional vacation, personal and sick days that were converted to separation pay upon resignation or retirement.

After about 10 years, the public went ballistic over the amounts of separation pay. Because of this and the deterioration in quality of leadership, the state legislature abolished the law.

Q: But isn’t $175,000 a decent amount, especially in these cost-cutting times?

A: It is a respectable number, but it isn’t competitive with suburban compensation in urban centers such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and Los Angeles. In these places, it’s not uncommon to see packages approaching or exceeding $300,000. And these are the areas with which high-quality districts in New Jersey are competing. Maybe $175,000 is higher than a rural district or an average one, but it would not be competitive in many high-quality suburban districts.

Q: Gov. Christie has also proposed some increases beyond the salary caps for meeting performance goals, as much as 15 percent more. That should make it easier to swallow, shouldn’t it?

A: It’s not uncommon to have boards offer incentives for proven performance, and I feel this is a plus. If a bonus is going to be part of the compensation package, we will make this as well as any other benefits known to potential candidates we may be recruiting.

Q: Bottom line, what do you think the impact will be?

A: I think you will see a lot of your better people leaving or retiring. There’s a lot of greyer heads who will retire, and the crop of younger administrators with the most potential will bolt for other states.

Q: Times are tough in New Jersey schools. Isn’t there some merit in coming up with a system for how superintendents are paid?

A: Salaries have indeed stabilized or even gone down in the last few years, and this has resulted in much less mobility. And I agree we need to find ways to be more efficient. As a superintendent for more than 20 years, I know that.

But honestly, the worst way to try to save is in leadership. Good leaders will save a district a lot more than anything a district will save by reducing salary. They will know how to organize a district to be as efficient and productive as possible.

Q: So what would you suggest?

A: In the best of all worlds, I would tie all managers’ pay — not just in public education — to productivity and performance. But when you are looking at superintendents, it is more difficult to measure productivity because different people have different expectations. At the same time, I know a lot of school boards don’t even know what their superintendents are earning or what they are receiving as added value. To me, it would be more desirable to put resources in the training of board members in how to set goals that will result in student performance and efficiency and how to hire superintendents who will do these things. That would be ideal.