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A Prophet for School Leaders

William Mayes, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators and the president of the Association of State Executives

William Mayes is in his seventh year as the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators and the president of the Association of State Executives (ASE ). He is a former superintendent of North Huron Schools, a consolidated district of two communities—Kinde and Port Austin—and of the Huron Intermediate School District, a service agency. We spoke with him after a July ASE meeting in Mystic, Conn.

Q: What are the main goals of the Association of State Executives?

WM: We are executive directors of the superintendents association of each of the states, so 95 percent of us have held superintendencies before. The previous executive director of Michigan is now the state superintendent of Michigan. That's Mike Flannigan. So we're deeply involved in the education politics of the state. The organization is designed primarily to share ideas about how we can better serve all of our superintendents and frontline administrators. We spend a great deal of time at our meetings talking about transformational leadership and how the superintendency today, all across the United States, has changed dramatically with the advent of all types of technology, with the economic downturn, with greater discussion about schools of choice and the voucher issue. These have made superintendency a far more difficult job. And we spend time talking about how we can best serve and help superintendents to be the very best that they can be at helping children achieve. It's actually a formal group. We have officers, and we pay dues. We meet four times a year.

DA: One of the topics discussed at your recent meeting is superintendents' salaries and, for instance, how many state governors have proposed capping their salaries.

WM: Superintendents' salaries is a topic of discussion in, I think, all 50 states. And you know that it is a complex one. Every politician who runs for governor, at one point or another, talks about superintendents' salaries. But they also talk about how it's so important and critical to be able to attract the best and the brightest and to have them be in front of our children and provide the best possible education experience that we can. So it's quite often a two-edged sword. When they talk about limiting the amount of salary that can be paid or capping the salary amount that can be paid, that's one thing. But if you're still trying to attract the best and the brightest candidates, let's say, to Grand Rapids, our second-largest city, we're competing with Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, and our salary levels are typically lower than those states. If you're trying to attract somebody to come to your second-largest city, you've got to be competitive.

DA: How would you compare the role of the superintendency to the private business sector?

WM: What other job requires a minimum of two university degrees? And normally the largest districts require a third degree, the PhD. But the bottom line is you are required to have that just to come to the table. And superintendents are often taking over the largest food service operation in the community, the largest transportation system in the community, the largest cleaning facility in the community, and all of the teaching and nurturing of students in the community. It's a major job. In industry, a supervisor might supervise probably four to six individuals. In education, we put principals in situations where they supervise 25 to 35 individuals. Superintendents who are in large districts often have to supervise and evaluate 10 administrators from the cabinet level. All of that is tremendously time-consuming, far more involved, and far more difficult than in the private business sector.

DA: In addition to regular personnel issues and instructional issues, there are also the unions, which add additional challenges to the job.

WM: They make it difficult and very interesting.

DA: As executive leaders, you must also be proponents for technological change in schools.

WM: We spend a lot of time looking at the technology that's available and how we can harness that technology so we can meet the new students who are technology natives versus technology immigrants, as the administrators tend to be. Again, I'm going to go back to things that are shared in industry. When you meet with the people of Ford Motor Company and you talk about what it is that they want their incoming employees to have, right now they want them to have more than a high school education. At minimum, they want an associate's degree, but often it's a full bachelor's degree. But they also want an individual who can work cooperatively and collaboratively on a team to solve problems. You do that using technology. You do that today being connected. Our world is a technologically changed world. It will never be the same as it was. And it will be continually evolving. We have to have students who can adapt and who will be prepared for the competition that they will experience from India, Brazil and China.

DA: According to a recent American Association of Superintendent's survey, only half of the respondents stated that they planned to remain a superintendent by 2015. As an organization, how is the ASE handling what could be considered a crisis?

WM: A large part of our work is recruiting. We are preparing or encouraging principals to consider the superintendency or the assistant superintendency. The rewards are just phenomenal; they're intrinsic. They might not be dollar and cents rewards necessarily, but someday you will be able to look back and say, "God, it was a great run, and yes, I have made a difference." For my first superintendency, I think there were 35 applicants for the position. Right now, if we have 15 solid applicants, we are happy. I've had some fairly good districts struggling to come up with 12 or 13 applicants for a decent superintendency. That's a sign of our times. It's a difficult job. It's a 24/7 job. It is a very intense position. In Michigan, you answer to seven board members. You are all alone. And sometimes being all alone is a very difficult thing. But the rewards truly are there because you make a difference for children. To me, I encourage people to consider it.

DA: I read on LinkedIn that you are a motivational speaker, which makes sense given the inspirational influence you can have on superintendents across the nation.

WM: I just believe that we have to look at realities. I guess I'd like to consider myself a prophet. And I'm not just crying in the wilderness. I'm a prophet who says, ‘Look down the road, and if you look down the road there's just great opportunity. But it's no longer our road, it's our children's road, and it's a different road from what we were on.'