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July 04. 2013 10:23PM

Fergus Cullen: Superintendents and other serial municipal monogamists

Manchester's newly retired superintendent, Tom Brennan, gave his notice four years into the job. Dover's superintendent made it three years before abruptly quitting last month with two years left on her contract.

Three to five years is a typical lifespan for school superintendents, and for city and town managers. Often the end of their relationships with the communities that hired them resembles divorce, with recriminations and good riddances on both sides. Yet it is also common for these ex-managers to get re-hired to do the same job in another community. What is it about these jobs that results in both high turnover and high recycling?

"It's politics," says Don Jutton of Municipal Resources, a Meredith company that has worked with scores of communities to fill municipal vacancies. "Local politics has become a blood sport. For some, it's recreational combat. It's not enough to disagree with you, they have to assassinate your character."

Often one school board, board of selectmen, or council conducts interviews and makes a hire. An election or two later, the volunteer board that did the hiring has turned over, and the new officials may not share the same philosophy.

As in other troubled relationships, money problems are a major source of friction. The public manager must be skilled in the art of tactfully saying no without burning bridges. "The more decisions you make, the more people you upset. Your friends die off and your enemies accrue," a former city manager described.

Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, points to the multiple constituencies his members have to please while responding to state and federal regulations as well. Superintendents answer to school boards, but also serve students, families, teachers, unions, and taxpayers. There are emotions involved. "Don't mess with elementary school mothers," warns a former school board member.

One seacoast town manager, who has worked in four New Hampshire communities, points out that the jobs come with stressful day and night schedules. Endless evening meetings take a toll on one's lifestyle and family. Public managers work on projects with long time horizons. It can take a decade for a community to go from thinking about building a school to opening one. Most public managers aren't able to stick around long enough to see projects from beginning to end. Just when a manager has enough experience and strong relationships to get things done, he or she has to move on.

Dover's situation has all these factors. Last fall, two years into a three-year contract, the school board extended superintendent Jean Briggs Badger's contract for three more years. Then a series of financial issues caused confidence in the superintendent to wane. The district spent surplus funds in the waning days of the last fiscal year without public notice. The city realized, belatedly, that it had been shorted $18 million over several years between state adequacy funds and unenforced tuition contracts with Barrington and Nottingham. The school district is in court in a Right To Know case challenging whether it conducted dozens of illegal non-public meetings.

With the relationship deteriorating, the superintendent decided to date other people. She was a finalist for the superintendent's job in Newburyport, Mass., but was left at the altar. With her commitment to Dover thus an open question, remaining public support evaporated. A day after seeing her $46 million budget cut by $200,000 to comply with the city's tax cap, the superintendent reacted by announcing she quit, retiring effective June 30.

Friends of the couple were quietly relieved to see this troubled relationship come to an end. It's not that either side was a bad person or that blame fell on one person. It's just that they weren't the right fit for each other anymore. It was time for both parties to move on.

Breaking up can be hard to do, though. Stuck without a leader weeks before the new fiscal year, the Dover School Board needed to find an interim superintendent, and fast.

Who did it hire to fill the vacancy created by Briggs Badger's retirement? Briggs Badger herself. She'll work on a part-time basis for the summer until the community finds someone new.

Maybe Brennan will apply.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com. He is the head of the Dover Taxpayers Association.


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