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School superintendents charged with complex duties

I am writing to set the record straight about the work done by superintendents in Western New York and across the state, following The News' critical editorial last month.

As superintendents, we develop and manage multimillion-dollar budgets and construction projects. We negotiate contracts with unions. We hire, evaluate and dismiss employees. We oversee bigger transportation systems and food service businesses than any other entity, public or private, in most of our communities. We are accountable for implementing state and national mandates in our communities.

We meet with frustrated taxpayers and upset parents. Every day school is in session, we see it as our personal duty to every parent to keep every child safe. We work an average of 50 to 60 hours per week (usually the latter) and are never truly "off-duty" as superintendent -- a requirement that we all understand when we accept the position.

Unlike private business executives, superintendents are not expected to produce a profit, that is true. But they are expected to lead under much more complex circumstances and with more public scrutiny than found in most businesses. Superintendents are accountable to an elected board of education, elected and appointed state officials, federal agencies, hundreds of parents and thousands of taxpayers.

Today, superintendents work in a climate where expectations for student achievement are rising while revenues are diminishing. They are expected to lead the changes needed to successfully balance these diverging demands. But at the same time, their latitude for leadership is limited by mountains of mandates that often serve more to protect the interests of adults than children.

The News portrayed superintendents as an obstacle to school district consolidation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Over the past two decades, only 22 percent of proposed district mergers have won voter approval. Superintendents are usually ahead of voters, recognizing when enrollment losses threaten their schools' ability to ensure a full education for all students at a manageable cost. They often lead against the initial community sentiment, urging residents to consider consolidation.

School districts are crucial community assets. They are often the largest employer in the community. They may be the reason families choose to buy homes where they do. Schools are not in business to make money but they make something far more important: futures -- for their students and for their communities.

Those of us who have served as superintendents are honored by the responsibilities our communities have entrusted to us. The demanding times ahead will require strong leaders willing to advocate and direct the system changes that will be required. School superintendents of New York State will not shy away from these challenges.

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Robert Reidy, a former superintendent, is executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

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