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The money's good, but skilled leaders are scarce

Wanted: Someone who likes working late nights and being harangued round-the-clock, even on weekends. Must enjoy being publicly lambasted by frustrated employees and irate parents. Experience slashing spending while simultaneously improving student test scores a plus.

Sound like the perfect job? If so, you may have what it takes to be a public school superintendent. If you're also able to play politics with panache and can mind many masters, you might consider trying to snag the top post in a regional district. Such are the demands on superintendents who oversee school systems that serve multiple communities -- each with their own priorities and financial concerns.

"The job used to be about education," said Mike Gilbert, field director for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "Today people look to their superintendents to set policy and meet federal and state mandates. So now a lot of what they do is as much politics as anything else.

"And in a regional district, the responsibilities of the job are compounded," added Gilbert, who also serves as chairman of the School Committee for Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill. "You have to deal with multiple communities , and the functions that would traditionally be handled by a municipality are done in the district."

Claire Sheff-Kohn is the superintendent of the Masconomet Regional School District, which serves 2,149 students in grades 7 to 12 from Topsfield, Middleton, and Boxford. "It's like being the CEO of a $25 million company," she said. "We not only provide an education to our kids, we also provide meals and transportation. As a regional superintendent, you have many more needs to communicate."

Regional superintendents have to oversee payroll, snow removal, student transportation, health insurance, and benefits, Gilbert said. They negotiate contracts with teachers, custodians, and bus companies. School construction projects are also managed by the superintendent -- nothing is handed off to a town manager because in a regional school system, the district isn't just another town department. It stands alone.

Given the demands of the job, superintendents of regional school systems tend to command bigger paychecks and more perks than top educators who serve a single community. The area's 10 regional superintendents earn an average of $146,434 in salary and perks; the 24 superintendents who serve just one city or town average $138,730 in total compensation, a Globe review found.

In the northern suburbs, Whittier Superintendent Karen Sarkisian earns the most -- $173,000, including $7,500 from the state for overseeing student transportation -- while Malden 's Superintendent Joan Connolly, whose total compensation is $169,579, earns the highest base salary in the region at $157,270.

Spiraling costs for healthcare, special education, and energy, coupled with standards-based accountability, are increasing the pressure on superintendents. Nowhere is this stress more evident than in regional districts, where top educators must stand before as many as 16 communities and defend their spending plans and policies.

"I have to go to Town Meetings in 11 communities," said Sarkisian, whose G rade 8 to 12 regional vocational school draws 1,145 students from Ipswich to Haverhill. "There are finance and selectmen's meetings to go to, too. I've gone to two or three meetings in a night. It's a round-the-clock job."

In some regional districts, it's a challenge to get students to identify with their school rather than dividing into cliques defined by their hometowns. In other districts, it's the parents and elected leaders who struggle as they try to allocate scant resources among schools in different towns.

"This district was created just seven years ago, so we're still in the process of getting some of our programs off the ground while easing others through the transition phase," said Pat Foley, interim superintendent of the Manchester-Essex regional schools. "Although the needs of the students in both towns are very similar, each town had been addressing those needs in very different ways."

The most striking differences were in the elementary grades, where math and science were being taught differently in each town. Streamlining the curriculum means that sometimes different resources must be allocated to the district's two elementary schools.

"The same and equal aren't always the same," noted Tom Foley, Pat's husband of 42 years and interim assistant superintendent of the district. The Foleys, who in August signed a one-year contract with Comprehensive Educational Services to oversee the K-12, 1,308-student Manchester-Essex district, share a $140,000 salary.

In the Triton Regional School District, which serves the towns of Newbury, Rowley, and Salisbury, budget woes are likely to force voters in the three communities to decide whether they want to pay higher property taxes to support the local schools.

Last May, all three towns rejected Proposition 2 1/2 override requests to cover soaring education costs, forcing the district to cut 26 teaching positions and eliminate funding for athletics and performing arts programs. District officials have drafted a fiscal 2008 budget plan that would restore nearly half of those teaching jobs and partially fund the extracurricular programs.

To bolster support, Superintendent Sandra Halloran is trying to establish a deeper connection among the three communities. She now meets regularly with a communication committee that consists of one Finance Committee member, one selectman, and one School Committee member from each town. She has also formed a separate advisory group, the Superintendent's Advisory Council, to hear from parents and concerned residents from each town.

"These three towns are very pro-education and are very receptive to what the district is doing and how we're doing it," said Halloran. "They want to be heard and they need to be validated. It's important that we listen to the people who are supporting us and address the issues raised by those who have questions."

Kathy McCabe of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Brenda J. Buote can be reached at bbuote@globe.com.

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