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Superintendents seeking right fit leads to high turnover

Administrators average 3.5 years in position before moving on

New District 36 superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis (left) smiles at outgoing superintendent Dr. Jill Gildea as Gildea talks about the Mac computer lab that Harrison School acquired from grant money during her three year tenure as District 36 superintendent. Sharma-Lewis was visiting the school for a training day earlier this month.
New District 36 superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis (left) smiles at outgoing superintendent Dr. Jill Gildea as Gildea talks about the Mac computer lab that Harrison School acquired from grant money during her three year tenure as District 36 superintendent. Sharma-Lewis was visiting the school for a training day earlier this month.

During the next month, Bhavna Sharma-Lewis and Jill Gildea will be working together closely to bring Sharma-Lewis up to speed on initiatives and equipment upgrades at Harrison School.

Sharma-Lewis will be taking notes on her laptop computer, with hopes that the meetings will help lead to a smooth transition at the one-school, K-8 district when she takes over July 1. Gildea will be a superintendent in Mundelein after three years at Harrison, on Wonder Lake’s east side.

Sharma-Lewis will be the fourth superintendent at Harrison in six years. Gildea said she wasn’t actively looking for a new job. She was recruited.

“It was an unexpected opportunity,” Gildea said.

Superintendent turnover is common for public school districts. The average term for a superintendent is 3½ years, said Gene Goeglein, the superintendent for the McHenry County Regional Office of Education.

School boards with members with longer tenures tend to have superintendents who stay longer, while a board with a lot of turnover might lead to shorter stays for superintendents, said Dawn Miller, an Illinois Association of School Boards consultant who handles superintendent searches.

“The board that hired you isn’t going to be the board that fires you,” Goeglein said.

Some superintendents jump around from district to district.

“They’ve accomplished everything they can in their current position and are looking for a different challenge,” Goeglein said. “Some are looking for more of a fit to what their skills are.”

Whether superintendents move around is a personal choice, Goeglein said. They might have different skills or expertise.

“It’s about a fit and where you like to be at a time of life,” said Laurie Tobias, who’s been superintendent at District 50 for two years.

Linda Amettis is the board president of Harrison District 36. The district used the Illinois Association of School Boards to perform a search for its new superintendent. The search cost $4,500. There was no one employed within the district certified to be a superintendent.

“We really didn’t want to go with an interim superintendent if we didn’t have to,” Amettis said. “There’s nothing wrong with it, ... but the staff know it’s not permanent and [that they] have to go with another change.”

Retired superintendents can serve as interim superintendents but are allowed to work only 120 days (about six months) during a school year. An interim superintendent is allowed to work within the same district for up to two years.

As Harrison District 36, a 500-student district, is transitioning to its fourth superintendent in six years, Amettis said she recognized that the district could be a starting point for young administrators.

“We’re all OK with that for now,” Amettis said. “We would love to see someone stay a long time, but with the size of the district and amount we can pay, it makes sense for someone to move up and move on. ... This probably is the way it’s going to be until we’re a bigger district.”

The district pays Gildea $143,767 annually, including the teachers’ retirement contribution. Sharma-Lewis will make between $100,000 and $110,000, Amettis has said.

Money isn’t the only variable when superintendents seek a move.

“If you feel you’re the right match for them, and you feel you’re going to make a difference and your vision and their goals are aligned, ... it’s like a marriage,” Sharma-Lewis said. “I think they want the best person for the job. If it’s three years, great. If it’s 10 years, great. If it’s 20 years, fantastic. I don’t know if there is a magical formula that says it’s been seven years, now I need to start looking.”

Districts are lucky when they can grow their own administrators.

Administrators in general might move around if opportunities in other districts might not be available in their current district, such as a principal moving to a district-level position in another district, said Alan Hoffman, superintendent at McHenry District 15. “It could be a case where they’re looking for opportunity and we were a stop along that way.”

Bob Glascott is the board president for District 156, which will have to look for a new superintendent in two years, when Superintendent Teresa Lane retires.

When the board hired Lane to be superintendent, it used a search. According to Northwest Herald archives, the search cost $12,500.

Lane, however, was the internal candidate, and not everyone on the board was convinced it needed to conduct a national search for a superintendent.

“There might be a better candidate, so we owed it to the community to check,” Glascott said. “You want stability and longevity.”

Glascott said he understood when there was a good opportunity for someone to move on from the district.

“When you have someone good, you don’t want to lose them, but at the same time, you don’t want to hold them back,” Glascott said.

Lea Damisch has worked her way up from being a teacher in Marengo-Union District 165 to being an administrator to being the superintendent. She’s been superintendent two years and just received a contract extension.

The district had experienced a lot of superintendent turnover.

“The district has not always been competitive with salaries. As a result, there was a little pool of qualified applicants,” Damisch said. “That’s not a negative. I knew the job; I knew it coming in and what the district could afford at the time.

“I think everybody chooses to walk a different path,” Damisch said. “I’m very comfortable where I’m at and like what I do.”

Length of service for current county superintendents

Nippersink District 2: Dan Oest, three years

Fox River Grove District 3: Tim Mahaffy, two years

Johnsburg District 12: Dan Johnson, four years

McHenry Elementary District 15: Alan Hoffman, six years

Riley District 18: Jerry Trickett, two years (as an interim)

Alden-Hebron District 19: Debbie Ehlenburg, three years

Cary District 26: Brian Coleman, two years

Harrison District 36: Jill Gildea, three years

Prairie Grove District 46: Mary Fasbender, six years

Crystal Lake District 47: Donn Mendoza, one year

Harvard District 50: Lauri Tobias, two years

Marengo High School District 154: Dan Bertrand, five years

Crystal Lake High School District 155: Jill Hawk, five years

McHenry High School District 156: Teresa Lane, four years

Richmond-Burton High School District 157: Dan Oest, five years (Oest serves as superintendent for District 2 as well)

Huntley District 158: John Burkey, four years

Marengo-Union District 165: Lea Damisch, two years

Woodstock District 200: Ellyn Wrzeski, nine years

Carpentersville District 300: Ken Arndt, nine years

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