After 17 years at the helm of Charles County Public Schools, James E. Richmond is stepping down next year, leaving behind a school district in which he served 47 years as a teacher, principal and superintendent.
With the longest tenure of any current Maryland schools chief, Richmond’s exit next year will mean more than half of the state’s local superintendents --14 of 24 -- will have been on the job less than four years.
While observers say that a long-term chief can bring stability and credibility to a school system, some districts, especially those in need of reform, benefit from new ideas and energy from a fresh face.
“I think a major benefit is stability, it allows for focusing on goals and objectives,” Richmond said of his long run in Charles County. “I’ve accomplished a lot in 17 years.”
In Maryland’s school districts, five superintendents started their first academic year in the past month. Another five are in just their second year. The superintendent of the state’s department of education, Lillian M. Lowery, is also new to Maryland this year.
Most superintendents in Maryland are signed to four-year contracts, although the average tenure for a school chief is seven years. For large school districts -- those with more than 25,000 students -- the average tenure drops to three years, according to research by the American Association of School Administrators.
“If you look across the nation, the term for superintendents is usually four years,” Richmond said. “That in itself tells you a lot about the job. It’s a stressful job. Working with boards of education is a hard thing to do at times.”
For school systems gaining a new leader, there are two ways of looking at the change, said Michael E. Hickey, director of the Center for Leadership in Education at Towson University and a superintendent of Howard County Public Schools for 16 years.
“There’s an upside and a downside,” Hickey said. “The upside is that someone new coming in will look at things with a fresh set of eyes. But any time you have someone new coming in, there’s a temporary destabilization.”
Those destabilizations come as Maryland has been dubbed the best education system four years running, according to Education Week.
For some districts, that period of destabilization seems to have been going on for a long time.
Prince George’s County has been through nine superintendents since Kenneth Haines, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, started teaching in 1987.
“In such a high-profile job, everyone wants to leave an imprint,” Haines said. “Every superintendent has added [initiatives], but nothing was ever eliminated, until recently.”
At the end of the month, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. will leave Prince George’s to take the helm at the School District of Philadelphia. An interim superintendent, Alvin Crawley, the former deputy chief of programming for D.C. schools’ Office of Special Education, started Sept. 4 and will serve for about 10 months as the school board searches for Hite’s permanent replacement.
As the school board goes through the process of finding a permanent replacement, its focus is more on working toward goals of increased academic achievement than on finding someone to set a new agenda, said board member Rosalind A. Johnson (Dist. 1).
“It’s important to get a good superintendent, but are we going to get one that stays 10 or 15 or 30 years?” Johnson said. “No, it’s the nature of the job.”
It’s the school board’s job, Johnson added, to keep policies consistent over the long term.
School with reform agendas can take that long to see changes, said Joshua P. Starr, who took over Montgomery County schools a year ago, when Jerry D. Weast retired after 12 years as superintendent.
“This work is really, really complex,” said Starr, who came to Montgomery County after six years at the helm of Stamford, Conn., public schools. “Research says it takes seven to 10 years to really improve a school system. It’s easy to come up with a plan. It’s hard to implement a plan, and it’s even harder to make adjustments as you go.”
Starr said his work is made much easier by Weast’s long tenure in Montgomery County, which is enabling him to build on the district’s past successes, like professional development for teachers and investment in prekindergarten education.
“Any leader is going to be compared to the previous leader,” Starr said. “Hopefully, many, many years down the road, the next person is going to be compared to me.”
While filling the shoes of another school chief can be challenging for the new guy, teachers also can feel the effects of high turnover in the classroom, said Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, a union representing 70,000 teachers and school employees.
“Most superintendents come in with their own ideas and priorities,” Weller said. “What makes it work between any administrator and employees is communication and collaboration.”
That communication will be especially important now, Weller said, as Maryland schools make changes to student assessments and teacher evaluations and move to adopt the new Common Core State Standards.
“Right now we have so much going on in education,” Weller said. “It’s a tough situation for everyone, even those who aren’t new.”
In a way, Weller said, so many new leaders in Maryland school systems could be a fortunate coincidence, as new superintendents may take to changes more readily than those entrenched in their positions.
Hickey is quick to point out that the 10 new school chiefs coming on board in the past two years looks like a lot in a state with only 24 districts.
“Most states have many more districts, where five [new superintendents a year] would look like nothing at all,” Hickey said, citing Pennsylvania with its 500 local school districts or Virginia with 102 county and city districts.
It’s likely just an accident of timing to see so many new faces, Hickey said, and doesn’t necessarily indicate a cycle of turnover that would lead to a decline in school performance.
“Most of these folks served a very respectable term,” Hickey said of those who left this year, including Weast and Joe Hairston, who left Baltimore County schools after 12 years.