Education degree no longer needed to be school chief
Have a graduate degree in business, finance, management or law?
You could be a school district superintendent.
A new law drops the requirement that prospective school chiefs have any experience in a classroom. There is no longer a need to be a teacher or principal or to have an education-related degree.
That means area school districts will suddenly find a much larger pool of applicants for the top jobs.
Supporters of the legislation say that the new requirements, including business and finance experience, are what a school chief needs in the time of unprecedented budget cuts. Others wonder how someone who has never been in a classroom can make decisions on students' educations.
To be a school district chief, the law previously required a person to have a Letter of Eligibility, issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. To receive that letter, the person had to complete a graduate-level program of educational administrative study, which consisted of two full academic years. The candidate also needed to have at least six years of experience in education, including at least three of those years in a supervisory capacity.
But now, someone with a degree in business, finance, management or law, along with four years of related experience, can also be a superintendent. Upon appointment, the person would need to complete a leadership development program.
The legislation was part of the law that limited superintendent payouts and specified what is to be included in superintendent contracts.
Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, questions how familiar non-traditional superintendents would be with issues surrounding student achievement.
His association advocated for the reinstatement of the mandate waiver program, which expired in 2010 and allowed districts to apply to the state on a case-by-case basis to allow people without letters of eligibility to become superintendents. Michael Sheridan, who did not have his letter of eligibility, served as Scranton School District CEO from 2004 to 2008 under the waiver program.
Some larger districts, which have multiple administrators such as an assistant superintendent and curriculum directors, could manage with someone at the top not having the educational background, Buckheit said.
"The reality is, in the state of Pennsylvania, a large number of districts are very small. In terms of administrative staff, it could be a superintendent and a business manager and no one else," he said. "You'd hope the school boards in those communities would make the right decision." Superintendents across the state are not pleased with the new rules, Buckeit said. About half of the school chiefs statewide have doctorates in educational administration, he said.
"They see this as a short cut," he said. "They're not happy about it."
Tom Templeton, an assistant executive director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, sees the legislation as a positive move.
A non-traditional candidate can bring a wide range of leadership, finance skills and knowledge to the job - and knowledge about business or law is important, he said.
Knowledge about education and student achievement is something that can be learned when the person has a "real drive to improve the organization," Templeton said.
"I think it can be a real benefit to a school district," he said.
The region has seen many superintendents retire or leave area school districts within the last few years.
Carbondale Area is still searching for a superintendent, after Dominick Famularo, Ed.D., retired after 41 years in the district. Leaders in area districts often emerge after starting as a teacher and then becoming a principal.
The new superintendent will not necessarily need that experience.
"It's always a benefit of having someone come through the system," Carbondale school board President Gary Smedley said. "However in this day and age with the current governor and his ideas with massive budget cuts, we're in a better-off position with more of a financial person."
Smedley said he would keep "all options open" as the search continues.
The search is also on at Lakeland, after the board recently decided to seek applicants instead of automatically renewing the contract of Margaret Billings-Jones, Ed.D.
Lakeland board President Mary Retzbach, said candidates without education degrees would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
"For me, we would be willing to accept people who are qualified business managers who are already in the education field," she said.
Wilkes-Barre Area is also searching for a superintendent.
At the start of the search, being conducted by the school boards association, the board made the decision to search for someone with an educational background.
Phillip Latinski, a Wilkes-Barre school board member and retired principal, said people who have not been teachers would not understand the job of a superintendent.
"I admire these people for having these degrees, because they worked hard to get them. But I still think to be a superintendent you need to come from an educational background," he said. "You have to understand curriculum. The only way you're going to understand curriculum is by being an administrator."
Staff writer Peter Cameron contributed to this report.
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