What makes a good superintendent?
With the Rochester School Board's decision to hire Kent Pekel as first new superintendent in a decade, that question takes on greater relevance. And not only because of the tidy sum superintendent fetch these days.
Superintendent salaries have spiraled to inflation-defying heights. When Jack Noennig was hired to be the district's leader in 1995, it paid him $98,000. Current superintendent Michael Muñoz makes $228,300.
Which underscores just how critical it is for a school board to get it right. Over the past quarter century, Rochester boards have hired top-notch superintendents, middling superintendents, and, for lack of a more charitable phrase, a couple of duds.
And the qualities that make the good superintendents good and the bad ones bad are worth noting.
If Rochester's hiring record was a batting average, it would be better than .500. That's smoking for baseball. But when a board picks the wrong person, the damage in terms of loss of public confidence and division within the community can be incalculable.
When you look at Rochester's superintendents over the past 25 years, the successful ones possessed, to a greater or lesser degree, certain bedrock qualities: Command of educational theory and practice, and good management and interpersonal skills. Those skills rank near the top.
But perhaps the most critical skill is an ability to communicate with the diverse array of constituents -- parents, students, teachers, and the tax-paying public -- that make up a district.
Here are snapshots of Rochester's last seven superintendents - some of them had the right stuff and some came up short.
January 1995 - January 2001
A top-notch superintendent, Noennig was the man for the moment. He arrived at a time of shaken public trust in the school system after an acrimonious teachers strike under the previous superintendent and the failure of bond referendums. He healed and restored confidence in the district.
People appreciated the big and small things he did -- like requiring people to take their hats off in the board room and instituting the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the school day.
"He was just a calming influence," said Carol Carryer, who served as a board member during Noennig's reign. "He was a good listener. He was honest and thoughtful."
Noennig's tenure ended on a downer note. A 10-year, $100 million override levy was soundly rejected by the public. The public thought it had not been adequately prepared for such a large ask. An honorable man, Noennig thought he had lost public trust and promptly resigned after a six-year tenure.
Jerry Williams (Interim superintendent, February 2001-June 2001) was the district's human resources director and had the unenviable task of picking up the pieces after the failed referendum. Faced with a $10 million shortfall, the district took an ax to music and industrial arts and laid off scores of staff.
"I did my best," Williams said after his six-month tenure.
July 2001 - February 2002
If you blinked, you missed it.
Shellinger set the land speed record for loss of trust by the school board. It took only eight months.
Shellinger was a skillful interviewer and had the gift of the gab. He was described as a "change agent." But the board and media failed to uncover some skeletons in his closet from his previous district of Ely, Nev., where he had closed a school without public notice.
He was best known for his flashy aviator glasses, on which the public became oddly fixated. (Note to future superintendents: If the public begins to obsess over what you wear or the glass desk you work at, it's not a good sign.)
Interim superintendent: March 2002
Permanent superintendent: April 2003 - June 2007
Another first-rate superintendent. Looking for stability, the board returned to Jerry Williams. The board liked what they saw during his first stint as interim superintendent. It soon dropped the "interim" label.
But Williams faced an uphill battle in one respect. He had been the administration's chief negotiator in contract talks with teachers. That can engender hard feelings among staff when you have to say no.
But Williams had strong communication skills, an ability he employed year-round, not just when contract talks came up.
"He was a very intelligent man of great integrity," said Paul Scanlon, a board member during William's tenure. "A great communicator. As superintendent, you basically have to have your elevator talk, a two-minute response to any question that anybody might ask about the district or on any issue."
Williams had that ability.
July 2007 - December 2010
It's hard to assess Dallemand's three-year tenure without reference to the eight-month prison term he served for tax evasion. The conviction stemmed from a federal bribery and corruption investigation into his activities as superintendent of a district in Macon, Ga., the district he decamped to after his time in Rochester.
Dallemand is complicated. He destroyed his reputation, but some viewed him as an idealist. As the district's first Black superintendent, Dallemand was the first leader to prioritize closing the achievement gap between white students and minority students. He knew where he wanted to go; he just didn't know how to get there.
Instead his tenure was marred by board infighting and community division. The public was nonplussed when it heard that Dallemand had spent thousands on a glass desk. But it wasn't out of line with what other superintendents had spent on desks.
Was racial bias at the root of the public's outrage? Many thought so. It's not hard to imagine that a more politically adroit leader would have handled the controversy more competently.
January 2011 - June 2011
Silver's time as interim superintendent was short and sweet, just like she was. Silver left a legacy larger than her 4-foot, 10-inch frame. She served only six months. Many thought she would have made a good permanent superintendent.
July 2011 to present
A good superintendent. Muñoz opened a new Alternative Learning Center, oversaw passage of bond and override levies and provided continuity. He had support from the business community, but communication was not his strength. He was undone by plagiarism scandals.