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Superintendent: It’s a Tough Job

There may be no tougher job than that of a school superintendent.

I’ve worked with nearly 100 in Kent ISD alone over the past two decades. All were smart, caring and compassionate people. All were subject to withering criticism at a moment’s notice for something totally outside of their control.

That opportunity for unwanted criticism was true of the politicians I covered as a reporter and worked with in the governor’s office for a time. It came with the territory.

It was not true of hardly any of the CEOs I covered as editor of a business publication. Most of those CEOs made much more than school superintendents, but few feared being on the front page of the newspaper or the 6 p.m. news because of the indiscretions of staff or customers.

Four of the 21 superintendents within Kent ISD will leave their jobs this year. All are strong leaders and have much more to contribute. Unfortunately, the joys of their job are counterbalanced with criticism of school performance, their athletics teams and, well, just about anything else someone can complain about.

In this era of social media, there are communications from students that can be called bullying or “threats” to safety almost every day. Every superintendent works as hard as he or she can to ensure the safety of students but few do enough in the eyes of a parent who believes their children are at risk, even when there’s little evidence to suggest otherwise.

If you think of the other jobs that carry similar six-figure salaries — software development engineer, investment banking, architect, logistics managers, pharmacy managers — few are so important to society but virtually none carry the level of accountability and responsibility heaped upon school superintendents.

This publication’s feature of Rockford Superintendent Dr. Michael Shibler is a peek into the life of an extraordinary leader whose 29 years as superintendent in one district is nearly five times the six-year average cited by the American Association of School Administrators. Like all of his peers, he thrives on his interaction with students and their families, but his longevity is due in  part to the zest with which he tackles a challenge. He is a true defender of his district and of public education. He delights in taking the tough interview and is defiant in the face of those who think they have all the answers.

Our superintendents have a daunting task. According to the recent study by the School Finance Research Collaborative, none have adequate resources to do the jobs we’ve asked of them. All pretty much work 24/7/365 or, if they don’t, they’re certainly on call 24/7 because the weather, students, staff or parents can create a crisis at any time.

This is the season during which superintendents are coming and going from districts, looking for a better fit or an opportunity to advance their careers. The pool of people who want these jobs is getting smaller and smaller because of the challenges they face.

The next time you get upset because the football team loses, there is a snow day and you don’t have a sitter, or you hear a rumor and suspect the worst because there wasn’t communication from the superintendent, please remember these are good people who are giving their all for your children. If you don’t believe me, ask their spouse or their own children.

Give them a break. Better yet, give them your thanks.

I’ll start with this note to Dr. Shibler and the three who recently announced their retirement — Dr. Sara Shubel of East Grand Rapids, Dr. Tom Reeder of Wyoming and Tom Enslen of Thornapple Kellogg. Thanks for your service. You’re the unsung heroes of your community. We appreciate all you’ve done and hope your retirement is all you hope it will be.  Cheers!

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education.


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