If Stan Slessor thinks he is seeing double some days, it's understandable. He is. As superintendent of two Iowa school districts at the same time, just about everything he does is in twos, from the two staffs he manages and the two daily schedules he keeps to the two briefcases--one for each district--he takes home at night.
Since 1997, Slessor was getting along fine as the head of a single district--Waverly-Shell Rock--that has 2,000 students in seven schools. Then, two years ago, the school board from neighboring Janesville came calling. Its enrollment was dropping and board members wondered if they could let their superintendent go and share a leader with the district next door.
The suggestion wasn't that much of a stretch. In Iowa, 28 districts have a shared superintendent arrangement this year, reports Slessor, a member of the School Administrators of Iowa executive committee. It's happening in other states, too, says Marty Strange, policy director for the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. Rural districts with declining enrollment are the most likely candidates. The arrangement can keep costs down without reducing local responsibilities or educational quality. But it takes the right kind of superintendent to make it work.
"I worried about the time it would take to establish relationships [in Janesville]," says Slessor, who began his career teaching social studies and later served as a psychologist, school board member and principal. "It takes considerable time ... in one district, let alone two."
Up to the Task
Slessor knew a bit about pulling double duty already. For one of his 10 years as superintendent in Independence, Iowa, he filled in as an elementary school principal. "It broadened my perspective and helped prepare me for my current situation," he says.
Showing respect for individuals and each school's mission helps make it work. "You always know he is truly listening to you and values your opinion," affirms Christine Thompson, elementary school principal/athletic director for Janesville, which serves 300 students in a single K-12 building.
"Even when a decision ... has to go one way or another, he makes everybody feel like a winner," says Micky Kingery, principal of two W-SR elementary schools (another sharing situation).
Despite the logistical challenges, Slessor maintains a positive outlook about his job. "Working in two districts is demanding but energizing," he says. Mornings are for Waverly-Shell Rock and afternoons for Janesville, with extra hours spent in both. W-SR pays 65 percent of his salary, since he's there the most. Slessor covers mileage himself.
The leader says he hasn't yet confused the districts, but it can be tough with board meetings on successive nights. And all the meeting prep time has resulted in less time for classroom visits.
The situation can have its benefits. An unexpected increase in W-SR's high school enrollment impacted English class sizes this school year. Schedule adjustments allowed two Janesville teachers to help out in W-SR part time, and their district is reimbursed for the arrangement.
The school systems share students, too. This year, 60 percent of Janesville students are bused to W-SR for at least one course. Slessor has suggested saving money and time with whole grade sharing in grades 7-12. More students would be bused overall, but they wouldn't have to travel between schools during the day.
If it happens, Slessor will be back to just one district by then. The W-SR board doesn't want its superintendent caught in the middle of the discussion, he explains, so they're ending the shared arrangement after this school year.
But Slessor, who notes that "good relationships between the districts have been formed," won't stop caring. He'll even assist Janesville in recruiting its new superintendent.
Alan Dessoff is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.