St. Louis is looking for its eighth school superintendent since 2003. Kansas City is on its 25th superintendent in 39 years.
Despite good salaries and plenty of perks, a recent study found that the average urban superintendent nationwide stays on the job only about three years — which educators say isn't enough time to enact meaningful, long-lasting reform.
"Would you buy Coca-Cola if they changed CEOs every year?" asked Diana Bourisaw, who left as St. Louis superintendent in July after two years in the top job. "The answer is no. I wouldn't."
On Friday, Kelvin Adams signed a three-year contract with the St. Louis district worth $225,000 annually plus bonus incentives, a day after his hiring was approved by a state-appointed board that oversees the district.
Focus on student achievement
Adams figures he can buck the trend of superintendent turnover.
"I am absolutely focused on one thing — student achievement," Adams said.
Academic accountability is the new national mantra in public education, and low-performing districts are placing high salaries and higher demands on their superintendents — who find themselves caught between factions of publicly elected school boards, teachers' unions and parent groups.
"I consider that to be the toughest job in America," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.
The school board in Kansas City has gained a reputation for micromanaging the district and end-running its own superintendent even as test scores languish year after year.
One school board member abruptly quit this past week, and in a resignation letter scolded her colleagues for not doing enough to address the district's accreditation problems and their "continued demonstrations of micromanagement and defensive posturing."
"This is clearly not a board that is interested in reforming its practices to achieve strong educational outcomes for our students," said board member Ingrid Burnett, "and I can no longer justify my involvement to myself or to my constituents."
Even superintendents with strong track records aren't safe. Rudy Crew, honored by his peers for improving schools in Florida's Miami-Dade County, was effectively fired by his board this month when the remainder of his contract was bought out.
Critics said he mismanaged the budget and didn't build ties with communities. He was there four years.
Average salary of $208,000
The 2006 study by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of some of the nation's largest urban public school systems, reported an average salary of $208,000 among the nearly 60 urban districts it examined. More than half of those superintendents got a car or mileage allowance, more than one-third got financial bonuses, and 2 percent received a housing allowance.
Yet it's not unheard of for a big-city opening to draw only a few dozen candidates — a testament, experts say, to the job's professional and political demands. Thirty-five people applied for the St. Louis job.
"With all the challenges they're facing, they're looking for somebody who can walk on water," said Stan Paz, a former superintendent in Tucson, Ariz., and El Paso, Texas, and now vice president of McGraw-Hill Education's urban advisory resource team.
Atlanta went through five superintendents in 10 years before Barbara Hall arrived in 1999, said school board member Katy Pattillo. She feels the district has made significant academic progress since Hall's arrival.
Pattillo said the Atlanta school board attended "governance training" to better define the roles of people involved in education and improve communication. Atlanta also worked to get community and business support for the district of 50,000 students and its leadership. Hall now boasts of academic gains every year since 2000.
In St. Louis, Adams — a first-time superintendent arriving from New Orleans, where he was chief of staff of the Recovery School District — takes over a district that hasn't been as fortunate.
Urban flight ongoing problem
Urban flight to the suburbs has plagued St. Louis since the 1950s. The population, more than 850,000 in 1950, is now about 350,000 — a loss of tax base that one superintendent after another has struggled to overcome.
The situation got so bad that last year that the Missouri Board of Education stripped the district of accreditation, saying it came up short academically and financially.
A three-member board was appointed last year to oversee the district. But the locally elected school board remains in place and its members are vocal, though largely powerless, and often second-guess the state panel's moves.
Bourisaw was hired in 2006 by the elected board. When the state-appointed board took over, members decided that with the new oversight the job should be advertised. Bourisaw was encouraged to reapply but declined.
Bourisaw said urban districts often face issues like poverty, immigration, frequently moving or homeless students and safety concerns that extend beyond education.
"I don't believe the quality of children's education should be determined by the ZIP code they live in," she said.
"School boards like to hire someone to come in and rescue the district, and one person can't do that."
Family feels district let them down
After a decade in St. Louis, Lori and Eric Peterson and their children are moving to the suburbs because they feel the school district has let them down.
Already this school year, fourth-grader Isabella has once arrived home an hour late because the fill-in bus driver didn't know the route. Third-grader Zain is worried his grade may still be split into smaller groups, potentially taking him away from classmates he began the school year with.
Lori Peterson said she has complained, but to no avail.
"Do we stay and try to prove a point that we're 'city' people?'" she asked. "Or do we leave because that's in the best interest of our children?"