April 19, 2007

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Publisher's Note: School leadership crisis
By Jody Reese

Public schools form the costliest arm of local government. In communities large and small, we spend more on schools than anything else. Each year, Manchester, Nashua, and Concord spend hundreds of millions of dollars educating local students.

So how do we make sure we’re getting our money’s worth? One critical element is getting the very best leadership possible.

That’s especially true in New Hampshire’s larger school districts, with their dozens of schools and hundreds of teachers and tens of thousands of students.

Those who say the public schools should be run more like a business would agree: charismatic and effective leadership is crucial for such a system to work at peak efficiency. The right boss makes it all come together.

Unfortunately, New Hampshire is at a disadvantage in the search for leaders to bring our school systems into the 21st century. The way we fund education keeps the best and brightest school leaders from wanting anything to do with the Granite State.

Think about it. In most places outside New Hampshire, education funding is not subject to annual staredowns over teacher layoffs and program cuts and superintendent salaries. Instead, school funding systems elsewhere support education without all the pain.

But in New Hampshire, superintendents invariably get drawn into the acrimonious environment that comes from funding public education with local property taxes. It’s not a promising equation for holding onto top talent to lead our schools.

For proof, look no further than Nashua’s recent encounter with Julia Earl, a highly regarded administrator who was brought to the Gate City two years ago because the school board wanted “visionary leadership” for the city’s schools.

Instead, Earl ran right into the buzzsaw of the worst aspects of the way education is handled in New Hampshire. Her compensation (about $150,000 a year) was subject to a battle from the mayor’s office, and she later wound up in a highly publicized dispute over travel expenses that led to her suspension for much of the past school year. In the end, Earl was exonerated, fled the district, and Nashua had to pay her a $250,000 settlement.

Escapades such as this will ensure that top educational leaders will keep their distance from New Hampshire. Instead, they’ll go to places where their skills are respected and they are allowed to do their jobs.

The lesson here is that if we want to get the most out of our schools, we need to be willing to pay for top talent to lead them, especially in larger districts such as Manchester, Nashua, and Concord.

Each of these communities makes a huge investment in public schools every year. Finding better ways to attract and retain effective leadership seems like a wise course, and a pretty good bargain to boot.

Or we can continue with the current method, in which all the best people go elsewhere, and we just hope to get lucky once in awhile.