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Opinion: An education in school leadership

The Allentown School District last week named Carol Birks as its sixth permanent superintendent in 12 years. The board set her salary at $250,000 a year with the ability to make 4% annual increases in each of the four years that her contract is in effect.

This makes her the second superintendent in the five-county Times News area to eclipse the quarter-million-dollar salary benchmark. The other is Dr. Elizabeth Robison, superintendent of the Pocono Mountain School District in Monroe County, whose salary could top $253,000 with a 3% performance increase later this year.

To put these salaries into perspective, Josh Shapiro, the newly seated governor of Pennsylvania, makes about $228,000, Debra Todd, the acting chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, makes about $252,000, Lansford native and Associate State Supreme Court Justice Christine Donohue makes about $245,000, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Roberts makes $277,000 a year, Associate U.S. Supreme Court justices such as Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan earn $255,300, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate make $174,000, Vice President Kamala Harris makes $235,100 and President Joe Biden is paid $400,000 a year. Of course, all of these pale in comparison to, let’s say, Phillies’ superstar Bryce Harper, who will earn a cool $26 million in 2023.

Birks’ appointment as Allentown superintendent and the first black woman to lead the district was approved by a 7-2 vote; the dissenting directors were unhappy with the selection process, agreeing with some residents and district organizations that it was not transparent enough.

Some residents complained about the salary, indicating that just starting in the job Birks is basically being offered a minimum of $1 million with her four-year contract, and this does not include some of the eye-popping benefits and perks that go with the job.

The Allentown district is the largest in the five-county region with a student enrollment of about 16,200. The Pocono Mountain district has an enrollment of about 8,300. Both districts have two high schools - Allentown has Allen and Dieruff, while Pocono Mountain has Pocono Mountain East and Pocono Mountain West.

My late brother-in-law, Dr. Larry Macaluso, a native of the New Columbus section of Nesquehoning, was superintendent of schools of the Red Lion Area School District in York County. I learned firsthand from his experiences how stressful the job is, especially in trying to satisfy the many constituencies that make up a district.

These challenges have been magnified even more so today in our highly politicized atmosphere where there has been a push for more parental involvement, questions about curriculum and the materials that students are seeing and using and many other issues.

The superintendent must walk a tightrope between the needs of the district and the sometimes frequent noise of activist board of education members. Let’s be clear about one major point: The school board hires the superintendent, so the nine-member board is his or her boss. To ignore such a fundamental reality can mean major problems for a superintendent - maybe not today or tomorrow because of contracts - but you can expect a bad outcome somewhere down the road.

Every school district in our area this year will have multiple school board elections, so superintendents must balance and sometimes modify their approach to leadership to take into account this potential change of board membership every two years. A school board member serves for four years, with about half of the board coming up for re-election every two years.

Just like in corporate America, when new owners take over, the CEO who had appeared to have been doing a fantastic job now falls out of favor with the new board. A lot of that is going on now with changes in the composition of school boards.

Despite this, we expect superintendents to be wise in the ways of education expertise and innovation, while many board members are not. We expect them to provide leadership and guidance to the board’s lay members. Years ago, boards often rubber-stamped whatever the superintendent wanted; today, not so much.

The average tenure of a Pennsylvania superintendent is about six years. Of course, there are many superintendents in our area who have been serving much longer, but, as noted in the Allentown district’s case, there have been six in just 12 years. That is turnover in the extreme and a sure prescription for chaos, distraction and disruption to the educational process.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.