You are here


Best Buddies

Superintendents and mayors are no longer adversaries. These days, especially in urban districts, man

They have a lot in common. They have constituents. They struggle with budgets. They grapple with transportation problems. They have to manage big staffs and human relation issues. And they both have governing boards they have to work with to formulate policy. They are superintendents and mayors. And educators say that now more than ever, these top chief executives have to work together or neither will thrive.

In the past, mayors ran their end of government and superintendents ran the schools. Sometimes they interacted. Sometimes they didn't. Often, they found themselves on different sides of complicated political and financial issues. But with increased federal pressure on schools to perform, and cities struggling to revitalize, mayors and superintendents say they are increasingly realizing that their success often depends on their cooperation.

In some cities mayors are appointing school boards and superintendents. In other areas, mayors are becoming members of school boards. And even in small rural districts, superintendents say they are checking in with their counterparts in their towns or counties more often than in the past.

"The relationship has really changed a lot over the last 10 years. It used to be defined by indifference; the two sides really not paying much attention to one another because they moved in different orbits and worried about their own issues pretty much to the exclusion of each other's challenges,'' says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "But over the years the relationship has changed to one of more collaboration and cooperation. I think people finally realized that they need each other."

It almost seems obvious. Mayors need strong school systems to attract residents and businesses to their communities. Superintendents need the help of mayors to build schools, provide affordable housing to attract teachers to the district and even provide services like police and security. In some areas, schools are dependent upon city approval of the education budget.

But instead of supporting each other, mayors and superintendents can be pitted against each other in politically charged environments rife with opportunities to lob criticisms and blame.

If a mayor has some control over a school district budget, school leaders can argue that budget cuts caused lower test scores or overcrowded classrooms. If a mayor doesn't have any connection to a school system, he or she can blame school leaders for failing to improve the schools and hurting the city's economic prospects. Sometimes, mayor-superintendent relationships fray under turf battles and power struggles.

"Superintendents tend to have egos and so do mayors,'' says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "So sometimes the this-town-ain't-big-enough-for-the-both-of-us mentality becomes a problem."

But many educators and politicians are saying that mentality just isn't working any more. And there are so many areas where school interests and city responsibilities overlap. These include affordable housing, public transportation, bonding, economic development, social support services, health issues and safety.

"The relationship has become a necessity,'' says Casserly.

In some areas the changes have been drastic with mayors being given direct control over education budgets and the hiring of major school staff. In other areas, the changes are more subtle, with superintendents intentionally serving on committees with mayors and mayors appointing executive staff members to act as liaisons to education departments.

Sitting In

In Stamford, Conn., a school district with a $200 million budget and 145,000 students, voters approved a referendum last November giving Mayor Dannel P. Malloy a non-voting seat on the elected school board. He not only participates in school board discussions, but also can make motions and attend executive sessions.

Malloy says he was surprised the referendum passed. He already had experience as a school board member before running for mayor. But he says as mayor he's glad he has the opportunity as a representative of city government to raise issues with the board of education. Still, he says, he isn't seeking more control than that. Now that he has to sit through school board meetings, he quips, he has more work with no additional pay.

Malloy says schools and city governments are stepping back historically to a time when towns governed both. And while he says he thinks more cities will want increased financial accountability from schools and more oversight, he's not certain mayoral control over school districts will sweep the nation.

"It hasn't played itself through all the big cities. It has a ways to go and has to prove itself,'' says Malloy.

"I'm a believer that the mayor should have a real active role in the public school system," says Superintendent Anthony L. Mazzullo. "I've always kept him appraised of the details of the school system so we can work together to benefit the kids. His role on the school board will just further that relationship."

Mazzullo says mayoral cooperation is essential. Schools and city government can merge departments to save money in many areas, he says. He worked with Malloy to merge technical support staffs to help with school and city computers. They also worked together to hire one firm to take care of both city recreational facilities and school grounds. They also hired a grant writer for the city and schools.

"We share resources and try not to have the philosophy that schools and the city are separate,'' says Mazzullo. (Mazzullo, head of Stamford's school district for six years, is leaving this June when his contract expires.)

Sometimes, Malloy says, that is easier said than done. Much of the tension that does arise comes in the spring, he adds. "We have a July 1 fiscal budget, and spring becomes a miserable time. People aren't getting along,'' Malloy says.

In Stamford, the education budget represents 60 percent of the city budget. The budget has to be approved by the Board of Finance and elected Board of Representatives. The school board is asking for a 9 percent increase for its 2005-06 budget and Malloy says that is a tough sell to taxpayers.

"I think most people in the city think we can't afford that so there will be gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair. At some point the budget will be established and ... as soon as you can go back to a good relationship and forget, the better,'' says Malloy.

Mazzullo says it's imperative he and Malloy leave their egos at the door. "Some people have strong egos and feel they are in positions of power and have turf and territory to protect. But it's totally absurd,'' he says. "You have to humbly leave your ego at the door when you have issues to resolve."

Urban and Rural

In the Midwest, St. Paul, Minn., Mayor Randy Kelly has forged just the same type of relationship with schools Superintendent Patricia Harvey as Mazzullo has with Malloy.

"We know that high performing schools are critical elements of the city's quality of life,'' says Kelly. "People won't move in if they don't have confidence in the schools."

Kelly says he sees an opportunity as mayor to use his bully pulpit to advocate for schools, not criticize. To foster a good relationship with the schools, Kelly appointed an education director within his staff to work with school administrators. After attending meetings with the school district staff and asking them how the city could help, the director, Penny Harris-Reynen, focused in on an effort to boost literacy and computer technology in the schools. The city and schools applied for a federal grant to bring 1,300 VISTA and AmeriCorps volunteers to 22 schools to work with elementary school children to improve their reading skills. The city has also been soliciting donations and funds from the business community to secure computers for schools and parents.

But Kelly has stopped short of trying to run the schools through the mayor's office. "I have 3,000 employees and 15 directors and I find running the city to be a full-time job,'' says Kelly. "I can't imagine having the responsibility of running a school district on top of that. It just consumes so much time and energy that I don't feel it is wise to overburden the mayor with overall control."

In St. Paul, a city of 300,000 and which has 44,000 students in its public schools, the superintendent and school board have sole control over the education budget. The $500,000 budget is almost the same amount as the city's budget, Kelly says.

"Pat and I take the same approach. We are strong advocates for the city and the school district. We make our needs known and we advocate for change, but we do this as a partnership,'' says Kelly.

While most of the formal collaboration occurs in cities, the trend has reached suburbs and even the small rural district of Jackson R II in Missouri. In Jackson, which has 4,600 students, the mayor has no control over the schools. But Superintendent Ron Anderson says he feels it is important to maintain a good relationship. "Our schools are part of a community," says Anderson. "We are not in isolation."

Anderson says only 25 percent of the Jackson population currently has children in schools. That means the majority of taxpayers have to really understand school issues to be supportive of school projects or bonding initiatives, making a close relationship with city officials even more important.

"You really need to approach it like you are not the only business in town," says Anderson. There are a lot of other choices people have. A lot of stretching of the tax dollar."

Anderson says serving on committees with the mayor helps foster good communication. Anderson and Mayor Paul Sander are serving on a joint committee studying a community center. Anderson also serves on the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club. "I go to every community event that I can because that is very important," he says. "You learn a lot, you listen."

Anderson says he talks frequently with Sanders by phone and they e-mail each other often. "We make it a high priority to share information," says Anderson.

He has worked with Sanders on community use of school fields, school usage of public parks and the hiring of school resource officers through a city grant. "If there are any issues," says Anderson, "we find a solution."

Mayoral Control

In some cities, mayors are taking much more control. In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has gained more control over the city schools than any other mayor since the 1870s. In addition to appointing a new chancellor, Joel I. Klein--an attorney without an education background--he pushed to end social promotion and introduced an ambitious plan to overhaul the schools, including changing the way reading and writing is taught and opening small secondary schools.

In 1998, the mayor of Cleveland became one of the first in the nation to get the power to appoint the school board. In concurrence with the board, the mayor also appoints the school CEO.

"School districts are really part and parcel of the government of a city,'' says Cleveland Municipal School District CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. "It just seems natural to me that the highest elected official should have some level of responsibility for that school system." Four years after Byrd-Bennett started in Cleveland in 1998, the city had a vote to decide if the school board would remain under mayoral control. The superintendent stated she would resign if the school board went back to being elected. Seventy percent of voters agreed to keep the board under mayoral control.

But Byrd-Bennett says school leaders must retain control over their budgets and their policies. And sometimes tensions and misunderstandings do surface when it comes to education funding, she says.

"Very often the finances of school districts are governed by very separate sets of legislation than the city budget. Sometimes there is not a clear understanding of how we operate under the state regulations,'' she says.

Byrd-Bennett says overall, the mayor's powers have benefited the district. "It's a double-edged sword, but it is a good one,'' she says. "The more ownership the broader community has over the school district, the better the public schools are."

Philadelphia school CEO Paul Vallas, who once worked in city government in Chicago, is a strong proponent of mayoral responsibility for schools. Three years ago the state stepped in when Philadelphia schools were practically bankrupt. The state established a School Reform Commission to oversee the schools. The commission appointed Vallas.

"If you are the mayor of a city and you don't have responsibility over the schools, you don't have the incentive to mobilize city resources for schools. When mayors don't have direct responsibility or political responsibility, it allows them to sit on the sidelines and criticize and not become constructively engaged. When they are given the legal responsibility of schools, they are now on the hook,'' Vallas says.

Before coming to Philadelphia in 2002, Vallas served as CEO for Chicago Public Schools and before that served as budget director for the city.

In 1995 Illinois state lawmakers gave Chicago Mayor Richard Daley control over the city's 600 schools and the ability to pick its leaders. Recently, the Chicago Board of Education approved Daley's reform policy that will close underperforming schools and open 100 new ones.

In Philadelphia, the authority rests both with the mayor and the governor. The mayor appoints two members of the School Reform Commission, the governor three. Much of the resources the city supplies for the district are statutory, such as property tax allocation.

Vallas and his staff work closely with the Mayor John F. Street's education liaison on such issues as school construction, housing policy, family health, economic development and after-school programs. For the past three years, the school district worked closely with the city health department to test teenagers and educate them about sexually transmitted diseases.

Even with mayoral participation, city and school relationships can still be strained, Vallas says. The schools are always hoping the city can provide more funding, he says, though the city is often struggling under the weight of its own financial constraints.

"About 84 percent of our students are eligible for some kind of free or reduced lunch, so sometimes there is some tension as we try to secure more resources for social service support and the city tries to balance its budget,'' says Vallas.

City leaders and school officials have also clashed over school safety issues. Vallas is in favor of uniformed city police officers in the schools, but the mayor and police commission feels the schools should rely on their own security staff.

Still, Vallas says the key to maintaining a good relationship is perspective. "You always need to empathize. Anytime you are dealing with other elected officials you have to understand what their responsibilities are and what pressures they have,'' says Vallas. "Decisions the city makes are not made in a vacuum.''

In pastoral Christianburg, Virg., Montgomery County Public School interim superintendent Jim Sellers works with a county administrator and chairman of the elected Board of Supervisors on school issues. The district, which has a budget of about $82 million and a student population of 9,400, is wholly dependent on the board for funding.

"That means we need to have an ongoing dialogue, cooperative and collaborative discussions. We need a relationship with our county administrator and board of supervisors that allows them to believe in our credibility in promoting school needs,'' says Sellers.

A few years ago, to promote a better relationship between the school district and the county government, the superintendent and chairman of the school board started meeting monthly with the chairman of the board of supervisors and its appointed county administrator. Each week, Sellers meets with the county administrator.

"Over the last five years, I believe the relationship between our two boards has been so much better,'' says Sellers. "They are talking to us and they are listening. When issues crop up now we are face to face and they are generally handled much more effectively and quickly."

Fran Silverman is a freelance writer based in Norwalk, Conn.

Related Information