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Time not long at pinnacle of school district

The job of school superintendent is a combination of wealth and power balanced with stress and vulnerability.

Among the most well-compensated public employees, with annual salary and benefits packages routinely topping $150,000, they are often compared to corporate CEOs; they deal with a board, hundreds of employees, thousands of "stakeholders," labor issues and budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. All the while, they must wonder whether one tax increase or school board election will cost them their job and/or reputation.

As a result, the phrase "longtime school superintendent" is becoming an oxymoron.

From the beginning of last year to the end of this year, 10 suburban school districts in Erie County will have had a change at the top. There are seven districts without a permanent superintendent, including three of the largest -- Frontier, Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda and Lancaster.

Clarence Superintendent Thomas Coseo, whose 16 years in the job make him the current dean of suburban superintendents, knows why.

"It can be an exhausting job," he said. "There are an awful lot of expectations from a pretty diverse constituency -- taxpayer groups, parent groups, various booster clubs and organizations within a community. There's an awful lot of pressure."

The glut of job openings here mirrors a trend in the state, where about 230 superintendents have left the job in the last three years. Some move on to larger districts in the same region; some head downstate where the cost of living is higher and so are the salaries; and some simply walk away with a pension that guarantees financial security for life.

James Brotz added his name to the list of soon-to-be-former superintendents last week, when he announced he would leave his West Seneca job at the end of this year. Brotz had been in the education business for 35 years but has been in the superintendent's office for less than five. He will be 56 when he retires.

Brotz represents the norm; the New York State Council of School Superintendents says that the average tenure of a superintendent is about five years and that most of them retire in their mid-50s.

Many don't stay retired for long. The need for superintendents is high, and the candidate pool is shallow. That's why some former superintendents get in the interim-superintendent business. David Kurzawa retired from Pioneer five years ago but has since held the interim title in Silver Creek, Southwestern and -- for the last five months -- Frontier.

Charles Stoddart has received "several" offers from area districts since leaving his Orchard Park post in 2004. But after leading that district for more than 20 years -- a span not likely to be matched again -- he took a position as an assistant professor at Fredonia State College, where he oversees the college's education administration program. So instead of running a district, he teaches others how to.

One of the issues he hears from his students who will be future administrators is the belief that the job of a superintendent has been transformed as a result of the emphasis on standardized tests in schools. Indeed, some school districts now tie superintendent performance bonuses to student achievement.

"It does seem to [have become] more of a test monitor than an educational leader, in my mind," Stoddart said.

When Brotz announced his retirement, he said people had always told him he would know when it was time.

The time for him -- like for many of his colleagues -- is now, which means it's time for West Seneca School Board members to look for his successor.

It won't be easy, but at least they'll have plenty of company.


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