Release Date: August 3, 2010
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When a school district needs help -- hiring a top administrator, facing consolidation, streamlining its transportation services, developing its big-picture plans or staring down most any of the highly charged decisions confronting the sometimes turbulent world of elementary and secondary education -- who are they going to call?
With increasing frequency, they call the University at Buffalo and, specifically, UB's Western New York Educational Service Council, which provides a cadre of former superintendents who bring their experience and ability together to assist districts. Experience has shown when school districts do call, they need those qualities the council brings to bear: Independence. Neutrality. Expertise. Knowledge. Familiarity with the local educational landscape. Objectivity.
"We don't have anything to gain, so we look to the facts and the research," says Bren T. Price, executive director of the council since 2005 whose educational resume includes years as a teacher, principal and superintendent. "We bring a neutral yet broad-based approach to superintendent searches and the other consulting work we do.
"We help districts to zoom into focus what they need. Oftentimes, the data is obvious. But it's up to the districts to decide what to do and what not to do."
The list of the council's recent studies and projects reads like a shopping network of educational consulting services. For example, there's the long-range finance and facilities study the council did for the Holland Central School District. The esoteric health insurance broker and third-party administrative study for Niagara Falls. The emotional merger study of Brocton and Fredonia Central School districts. The more specialized and technical waste disposal study for Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES.
In each case, Price looks to his 10 consultants -- most of them retired school superintendents who worked and still live locally -- and tries to match his staff's skills with the project needs of the district. Chances are someone on that roster fits the bill.
Although the council is a non-profit agency, school districts pay a fee for services. In the case of school superintendent searches, the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services would provide that function at no charge to its members. But the council would provide a dimension and depth that comes with someone able to devote attention to the task fulltime, and doesn't need to balance the assignment with other job responsibilities.
Although Price emphasizes the council's services engage a wide variety of school district personnel, many of whom seldom see in-service training so essential in keeping educators current, it¡¦s hard to overestimate what a good superintendent means to the district. And given today's era of economic hardships and Albany confusion, finding a good administrator may never have been more difficult.
"Strong and dynamic school leaders have always been hard to find, even when state aid was increasing each year to meet the new standards imposed by the Board of Regents," says the council's search consultant Vincent Coppola, who has conducted about 90 superintendent searches in the past 12 years, mostly in New York State. "However, in today's environment, where state officials are forced to reduce school aid, resulting in massive staff cuts and program reductions, fewer educators are seeking to pursue a career as a school superintendent."
Being a district superintendent these days means balancing competing interests of stakeholder groups and the school boards who oversee the work of superintendents. This often leads to a more hostile environment, Price and Coppola say, and makes the job of superintendent less attractive to prospective candidates. As a result, the average superintendent now spends five years or less in any one district, a statistic both former administrators call "startling."
"More has to be done to encourage and support bright and creative educators to pursue the superintendency," says Coppola. "Otherwise, our schools will lack the skilled leadership necessary to provide a world class education to the future graduates of our public schools."
"Sometimes a district doesn't have as clear an idea of what they are looking for as they should," Price says. "A good consultant can help the district identify what's important and help them to understand the process more.
"I don't think there is anyone who researches a district, recruits candidates and does as much background checking when doing a search as we do," Price adds.
Although administrative and superintendent searches are a mainstay of the council's functions, it also provides several other services, such as:
-- Professional Development. The council holds administrative seminars, study groups and regular professional development workshops on current topics at reasonable costs. "It's a sharing of knowledge with folks who sometimes don¡¦t normally get that kind of opportunity," Price says.
-- Executive Leadership Study Groups. Designed to give school superintendents the opportunity to examine current issues in an educational and practical context, the council's School Site Leadership Study Group sessions stimulate thinking about ways of improving administrative practice and offer an informal support base among highly competent peers.
-- Other activities include school board workshops and other daylong conferences designed to build this network of educators that go beyond district boundaries. For example, the council sponsored a "Non-instructional School Leaders Conference" in July for those who work outside the classroom, such as transportation supervisors, cafeteria managers and human resources personnel.
-- The council also brings researchers and those in the education field together to share information and ideas. Among the recent programs were presentations by Graduate School of Education professors Douglas Clements and Julie Sarama on their Building Blocks program to help at-risk pre-kindergarten students learn math skills. And UB researcher Gregory A. Fabiano, who works with high-risk teenage drivers to improve their driving habits as well as their relationships with their parents, will give a daylong seminar on behavioral management issues on Sept. 23.
"School leadership is complex work, complicated even further by ever-changing state and federal policy, as well as local political dynamics," Price says. "The council is determined to accomplish its mission -- service to the educational communities of Western New York -- with passion and vision for the future. The children who inhabit our schools deserve no less."
For more information about the council's work, call 645-2932 or visit http://www.wnyesc.org.