Feature

In the Name of Survival: The Dual Superintendency

One ambitious leader, two small neighboring districts. It’s a popular tack in rural America for the preservation of proud communities. by Kate Beem

Most days are busy for Michael Cunning. But fall Fridays are a killer.

That’s the day when Cunning’s job pulling double duty as the superintendent of two west-central Nebraska school districts requires particular aplomb — and a reliable car.

Cunning, 54, who grew up in a town 60 miles away, doesn’t want to play favorites so he goes to extraordinary lengths to divide his time and attention equitably. Frequently he’ll attend the first half of a football game in one district before dashing seven miles to the other school for the second half of that game. He much prefers juggling football games to school board meetings that occur on the same day, which happens occasionally despite much advanced planning.

The meetings and events between two school districts, even small ones, are numerous and the calendar fills up quickly. Taking on the top job in two districts requires organization and an understanding family, Cunning says.

“Some weeks I’m not home at all at night,” he says.

Fiscal Reality
Such is the life for an increasing number of rural school superintendents across much of the nation’s midsection. Small communities are emptying as quickly as large conglomerates are gobbling up family farms, and funding often is tied to enrollment. School districts of 500 students are considered on the large side.

While the countryside loses its population, suburban Midwestern districts are booming, unable to build schools quickly enough to accommodate their burgeoning populations. In a tough economy, this dichotomy creates problems for many states that award money for education based on the numbers of students enrolled. With the pot only so big, legislators usually vote to send the money where the bodies are.

Enter the dual superintendency and educators such as Cunning who are willing to shoulder the administrative tasks of two or more districts in an effort to save each district money. The job isn’t for someone who wants to coast. There are two budgets to develop and monitor, two school boards, two sets of priorities. There’s no down time, say those who have done it or are ensconced in such situations right now. Keeping everyone in two school districts satisfied is more than a full-time occupation. The successful dual superintendent realizes the pitfalls going in, say the old-timers. Yet the challenge — and the larger salary — can be attractive.

School board members have to recognize the difficulties, too. There’s scant time for the superintendent to coddle board members or spend much time shooting the breeze. This might explain why districts sometimes share superintendents for a few years and then drop the arrangement when the funding situation brightens. Other school communities see the dual superintendency as part of a prolonged courtship dance, giving them time to size up each other before considering a permanent merger. And for some districts, sharing a superintendent is the only way to stave off forced consolidation, which many rural communities see as the beginning of the end.

“I wish I could tell you it was for student achievement,” says Bob Decker, a professor in the department of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa who has studied the phenomenon. “It’s all about survival.”

Decker has researched the trend in Iowa, where 19 school superintendents currently have dual assignments. The numbers are higher than other states because of incentives offered in the late 1980s by the Iowa General Assembly. Times were tight then, and the legislature made it financially worthwhile for rural districts to investigate sharing resources and possibly reorganizing. Strapped school districts saw cooperation as a means to more money and resources, Decker says. By the 1991-92 school year, 119 school districts shared superintendents, according to data from the Iowa Department of Education.

Then the economic picture brightened, and the numbers of shared superintendents in Iowa declined. Their numbers, though holding steady for the past 15 years, are set to climb again, thanks in part to the weak economy and the mass exodus from the Great Plains. Rumblings of state-imposed school district minimums — the lowest allowable number of enrolled students before a school district would cease to operate — are coming from the Iowa legislature. Already, more than half of Iowa’s 365 school districts enroll fewer than 1,000 students. This year, 47 Iowa school districts offered eight-man football because they don’t have the numbers to field 11-person teams, says Gaylord Tryon, interim executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa. During the next school year, that number will rise to 54, according to data from the Iowa High School Athletic Association.

“It isn’t just a financial thing,” Tryon says.

Forging Agreements
That’s the case in other states where dual superintendents are common or becoming more so. In North Dakota, for instance, state officials are encouraging districts to enter into interlocal cooperative agreements, says Marty Strange, policy director of the Rural School and Community Trust.

School districts that share administrative and student services can earn extra state money. Though critics charge the agreements to share are a backdoor route to consolidation, they also spell relief in a state considered the “epicenter of declining enrollment,” Strange says. Such agreements can spare prolonged and emotional fights over consolidation and excessively long bus rides for students.

“You have to go a long way in North Dakota to pick up enough kids to have an elementary school with 500 kids in it,” Strange says.

Yet bigger doesn’t always spell better, Cunning has found during the 2½ years he’s been leading both the Sutherland and Hershey school districts in Nebraska. The two are situated along Interstate 80, about 250 miles west of Lincoln, Neb., and 250 miles east of Denver.

Cunning spent the last 25 years in the 385-student Sutherland district, where he was an elementary principal before assuming the superintendent’s job 23 years ago. But he’s no stranger to the 489-student Hershey district. In the mid-1980s, Cunning was superintendent of both for two years. During that time, the two boards of education talked at length about reorganizing into one district. The districts are similar in size and demographics, and both educate students in single K-12 buildings. But the merger talks waned, and each district embarked on successful bond campaigns. At that point Cunning reconsidered taking on another district, even though the rest of the arrangement was running smoothly.

“I said, ‘Two buildings, two schools, too much,’“ he says. And he went back to running just one.

Two years ago, though, when Hershey’s superintendent left for another job, the Hershey board approached Cunning again. He was a known entity, and the board members respected his record, says Steve Koch, president of the Hershey board. Koch said the board was looking for a good leader, but “we wanted to be financially responsible, too.” Sharing a superintendent with Sutherland has saved the Hershey district between $40,000 and $50,000 annually, Koch said. The two districts each pay half of Cunning’s salary and his substantial mileage — about 3,000 miles over the course of a year.

When Cunning agreed to the arrangement, he had a few terms. He would lead both districts only if the two would agree to a feasibility study examining what Sutherland and Hershey would look like if they merged. Both boards agreed, and they expect the study results by late spring.

Koch says he doubts the study, currently being conducted by a Nebraska-based consulting firm, will recommend that Sutherland and Hershey merge because the districts are fine financially.

“But maybe we could share,” Koch says. “Maybe we could add another math class and share a teacher between the two schools.”

That’s the kind of feedback Cunning is hoping for. Finding ways for the two districts to further share resources will free up funds that can go toward classrooms and course offerings and projects that benefit students, he says. Both schools have two full-time principals who share much of the day-to-day operational responsibilities. Cunning finds himself shuffling papers — twice the number he handled with just one district — and shooting for face time. It helps that the schools are just a 15-minute drive apart.

“It’s not hard to go from one to the other,” Cunning says.

Minimal Glitches
In Wisconsin, Mark Lichte juggles a similar schedule as the superintendent of both the Stone Bank and Lake Country systems, K-8 school districts feeding into a common high school. The districts are seven miles apart and about 30 miles west of Milwaukee.

Lichte, 40, is in the midst of his second year guiding both districts. He had been superintendent at the 320-student Stone Bank district five years before taking on the job at Lake Country, a district of 520 students. When Lake Country’s previous superintendent left and another job candidate backed out at the last minute, the Lake Country board asked Stone Bank board members whether they’d consider sharing Lichte, who agreed. The arrangement saves each district $65,000 annually, Lichte says.

“If we put that money toward the kids, we can save or hire a teacher,” Lichte said.

The share is working with a modicum of glitches, says Sally Pla, president of the Lake Country school board, who credits Lichte with the smooth sailing. The Lake Country board knew and respected Lichte’s reputation at Stone Bank, but he’s surpassed their expectations with his guidance of their own school, Pla says.

These days, the two districts share not only Lichte but also a bookkeeper and a Spanish teacher, and they’ve retained the same law firm.

But there’s scant talk of merging the two districts. Pla says it isn’t feasible, although Klink, Stone Bank’s school board president, doesn’t rule out the possibility. It’s a raw, emotional issue that neither district is ready for, Lichte says. Both communities would have to want consolidation, which isn’t likely even when districts face financial difficulties.

“There’s too much history and culture in each,” Lichte says.

The superintendent works off an appointment calendar, and he spends some of each day in both buildings. That keeps the staff and the community happy at best, satisfied at least, Lichte says. He’s a part of both places now, says Klink.

“In order for it to work, everybody needs to be on the same page,” Klink says. “And that’s happened here.”

Retaining Talent
Flexibility and an understanding of the larger picture definitely are a must for school boards sharing a superintendent. In Bridgewater, S.D., the school district agreed to share Superintendent Jason Bailey with the nearby Emery School District when it became apparent the young superintendent needed a challenge to keep him around, says Bridgewater School Board President Charles Stahl.

It’s no easy feat finding a superintendent for many districts, let alone one in rural South Dakota. Bailey, 33, is finishing his second year guiding both districts. He previously led Bridgewater for two years. The two districts sit six miles apart about midway between Mitchell and Sioux Falls, S.D.

“We as a board realized that Jason was a quality superintendent,” Stahl says. “He was young, and he could have any opportunity he wanted to. We couldn’t continue to pay what he would make if he moved.” With the added responsibility of another school district, Bailey’s salary rose by $12,000.

From the perspective of the Emery district, Bailey stepped in at a critical time financially. Economies of scale weren’t happening, despite some cost-saving measures, such as sharing sports teams with other school districts. Both districts are small: Bridgewater enrolls 182 students in one K-12 building; Emery has 178 students in one K-12 building. Yet there’s relatively little open discussion of merging the districts, Bailey says.

Jim Hanssen, president of the Emery school board, explains it this way: “That’s a hard thing to do here. Both districts want their own name. But everybody knows that down the road it will happen.”

Bailey’s not so sure. Test scores are strong at both Emery and Bridgewater, and the two districts have achieved “distinguished” status from the state, Bailey says. So it’s just a matter of economics, he says.

Bailey quickly saw where he could achieve efficiency. The two districts now share every sports team but football (because the football programs already were sharing with other districts), high school and elementary principals, a technology coordinator and an elementary music teacher. Bailey spends half of each day in each building. It helps that the schools are only 10 minutes apart.

Managing Peculiarities
Terry Robertson saw professional development as a plus during his stint as a dual superintendent in west-central Illinois in the late 1990s, and not just for himself. Because of the demands on his time running two districts covering 500 square miles of Illinois farmland, Robertson relied heavily on principals and other administrators to help run the district. With a superintendent shortage looming, Robertson saw himself cultivating potential superintendents, and he wasn’t wrong.

One principal that Robertson mentored in the Astoria Community Unit School District 1 went on to become a superintendent in a neighboring district, and now he leads Schuyler County Community District 1, which Robertson ran along with Astoria. The districts are about 45 minutes west of Peoria and 150 miles north of St. Louis. Schuyler County’s enrollment is about 1,300 students; Astoria’s is 450.

When Robertson, now 59, took on the task of running both districts in 1995, both were on the state’s financial watch list. The financial issues were challenging, as were other peculiarities of operating two systems. Teachers in one district were represented by the National Education Association, while those in the other were members of the American Federation of Teachers. Ironing out those differences took a higher priority than his efforts to convince patrons in both communities to share resources, Robertson says, in part because of Illinois’ tradition of school district cooperation.

Still, there’s no getting around the personal difficulties inherent in running two districts, which Robertson did until 2001. These days, he’s the superintendent of one district in northeast Missouri. The Knox County School District in Edina, Mo., is about two hours west of his family’s home in Augusta, Ill., which means Robertson and his wife, Diane, have a commuter marriage. But now Robertson has a chance to form a relationship with community members, staff and students in his district, something he couldn’t do well while running the Schuyler County and Astoria districts.

“It was almost totally a business job,” he says. “I didn’t like it.”

The Thompsonville Grade School District No. 62 and the Thompsonville Community High School District No. 112 enroll 215 students and 106 students, respectively. They share one K-12 building about 100 miles southeast of St. Louis in Franklin County.

The paperwork alone in managing two entities can be overwhelming. In Southern Illinois, Greg Goins answers to two different boards, each with seven members, though one member sits on both. The boards meet separately. Goins works with two bookkeepers, prepares two budgets, negotiates two faculty contracts and worries about two tax levies. When it’s time for each district to pay the bills, Goins signs two checks.

“At times it gets to be rather comical,” says Goins, 38.

He’s been running the two districts for four years. Early in his tenure, he received a $4,500 grant from the Illinois State Board of Education to conduct a study on the feasibility of reorganizing into one district. The study, however, found that the two districts didn’t qualify as a unit district under current state law. Still, the two Thompsonville districts share transportation and personnel, and Goins thinks of them as a single entity. Hardly anyone in the district, though, sees any reason for the two districts to merge. But Goins can imagine infinite difficulties that could arise from his work situation.

“What would happen in a strike situation?” he asks. “Fortunately for me, this is a small town, and everyone knows each other, and everyone gets along very well.”

A Study’s Findings
For Don Wells, a dual superintendent in Kansas, the job gets confusing, even with synchronized schedules. The two districts he leads, Hillcrest and North Central, located northwest of Topeka, are considering consolidating with other nearby districts. The talks and discussions have been intense and emotional, and Wells works hard to keep straight the circumstances of each.

“I always said being a dual superintendent would be fun,” says Wells, 59. “But it’s sure turned into a lot of work with this consolidation stuff. I can’t focus on one district. I wonder whom I told what.”

Lichte worries, too, that he can’t be as thorough as he should be with either of his Wisconsin districts. He can’t find the time to delve into certain issues like he could when he was running just one district.

But Pla shrugs off those worries. Lichte does a wonderful job being in two places at once, she says. “He’s able to juggle so many balls in the air.”

School board members often don’t understand the difficulties dual superintendents face, says Caroline Winchester, who studied the issue for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Nebraska. Board members generally seek out a dual superintendent to save money, and there is an immediate savings, says Winchester, now the superintendent of the 350-student Loup City School District in central Nebraska. But long-term savings are debatable, Winchester says.

Dual superintendents generally garner larger salaries than a superintendent leading just one district so the raw salary savings usually isn’t 50 percent, although the savings in benefits is cut in half. But often in such situations, principals and secretaries take on added responsibilities, and their salaries rise accordingly. The savings realized initially goes by the wayside by the fourth or fifth year of a share, Winchester found in her research.

“It needs to be done for more reasons than just saving money,” she says.

And superintendents and their board members need to realize the very real possibility of burnout that dual administrators face, says Tryon, director of the School Administrators of Iowa. Few dual superintendents do the job for the long haul.

“The pool of superintendent candidates is not there,” Tryon says.

Kate Beem is a free-lance education writer in Independence, Mo. E-mail: ksbeem@earthlink.net