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A Dearth of Leadership

August 28, 2007 By

Half the school districts surveyed in a new national study reported a shortage in the labor pool for elementary and high school principals. Rural Minnesota is seeing the same shortage in education administrators.

Every year, several school district superintendent positions go unfilled in rural areas, said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. To fill those jobs, school boards have turned creative. About 10 to 15 districts use retirees as part-time superintendents. About six superintendents are shared among several districts, Kyte said.

There are also too few applicants for principal openings in rural Minnesota, said Joann Knuth, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals.

"When there's an opening at a suburban district for an assistant principal, they'll get maybe 100 applications," Knuth said. But a rural post may not draw even 10 qualified applicants.

Chris Sonju, superintendent of the Glencoe/Silver Lake district, said a principal opening this year drew 18 applicants. Four were qualified for the job, he said.

Knuth said some rural districts have combined the superintendent and principal roles, making both half-time jobs. This doubling of responsibility puts a strain on both functions, Knuth said, but "when the decision is between cutting an English teacher or having your superintendent oversee the high school, you need that teacher in the classroom, bottom line," she said.

Why are these administrative jobs unattractive?

Most principals and superintendents say they aren't paid enough for the stress or hours they put into the job. In addition to mundane tasks such as keeping the lights on, principals and superintendents must respond to parents, teachers, unions and others. In rural communities, these constituencies tend to be very vocal. There is no anonymity in a small district.

Schools are the heart of most small communities, Knuth said, and the principal or superintendent is the heart of the school. It's a role not every would-be administrator can fill, Knuth said.

How to make up the difference? P. Fred Storti, executive director of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals' Association, said his group encourages principals to scout for administrative talent on their staffs. When they find teachers with drive and leadership ability, they encourage them to become principals.

Besides, "in education, there's not much of a career ladder," Storti said. "You're either a teacher or an administrator. There are not a lot of choices for advancement."

When asked if there was a shortage of elementary school principals, Storti said half of his group's members are at least 50 years old.

"We'll talk in about 10 years," he said.

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