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Schools change at the top

Early-retirement option leaves districts scrambling to hire superintendents, principals

By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / September 3, 2009

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For the last several years, salaries for public school superintendents and high school principals have steadily risen, and more chief administrators and educators have taken early retirement, an option that grants some of them up to 80 percent of their pay.

That trend continues this year as superintendents and principals have moved in and out of posts before students return this month. In the Globe North region, new superintendents are in place in Amesbury, Lawrence, Nahant, Newburyport, North Andover, Swampscott, Woburn, and the Masconomet Regional School District.

At area high schools, new principals have filled openings in Andover, Chelmsford, Hamilton-Wenham, Lynn Classical, Marblehead, Methuen, Reading, Swampscott, Wakefield, and Woburn. Also, new leaders are in place at Malden Catholic, Pingree School in Hamilton, Open Bible Academy in Burlington, and Nazareth Academy in Wakefield.

Across the state, 64 of the Commonwealth’s 277 superintendents resigned during the last year, said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. Scott said job pressures have led to fewer applicants for the openings and shorter tenures. To try to attract and retain leadership, school districts are paying superintendents higher salaries. Scott said superintendents average $144,000 in pay, and stay on the job about 4 1/2 years on average.

“The job has a number of challenges today,’’ said Scott. “Accountability is much greater, you’ve got dwindling resources, things are much more politically based than they ever have been, and sometimes people are looking for a different opportunity with more resources or a new situation.’’

Scott said fewer principals are applying for superintendent posts because they don’t want added responsibilities.

Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators’ Association, also said the list of qualified applicants for high school principals is shrinking because of the early retirement option. State legislation passed in 2000 allows educators who have taught for 34 years and have reached age 58 to be eligible to receive 80 percent of their salary.

“The pool of experienced people is much smaller, and we don’t have as many assistant principals coming up because they’re retiring too,’’ said Wetzel.

As more top administrators and educators leave, school officials are increasingly looking for internal candidates to fill openings.

“For some school districts, if they go outside of the district there’s a period of transition. We were fortunate that each one of our positions was filled internally,’’ said Angelo Taranto, chairman of the Chelmsford School Committee.

This year, Chelmsford hired an assistant superintendent, a middle school principal, and a high school principal who were longtime town educators. At the high school, Anne O’Bryant, a former social studies teacher and high school dean, is now the principal. She succeeds Al Thomas, who retired in June.

In Lawrence, Mary Lou Bergeron has become acting superintendent, while the School Committee determines the fate of Wilfredo Laboy. Laboy has been on paid administrative leave since June. The state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance is investigating whether Laboy allowed Lawrence politicians to print campaign material on the district’s industrial printer. Earlier this year, state and local police raided Laboy’s office and seized his computers as part of a reported investigation into alleged financial improprieties within the district.

Bergeron, who has worked for the Lawrence district for 28 years as a teacher and assistant superintendent, said her knowledge of the school curriculum and personnel will allow her to face the 12,250-student district’s biggest challenge: dealing with the 2,000 students who will come and go during the school year. Bergeron said most of those students come from the Dominican Republic to Lawrence, where the district is 89.6 percent Latino.

To address the 1,000 new students who arrive midyear, Bergeron’s staff administers a series of assessments to test their English, reading, grammar, and math. She said the Laboy investigation will not affect the district’s ability to serve students.

“We have to remain focused and block out whatever’s going on outside,’’ she said.

At Lynn Classical, students and faculty will see a familiar face in the principal’s office. Eugene Constantino, who has worked for 32 years in the Lynn schools and 27 years at Classical, has succeeded Warren White, who retired.

Constantino said the school will have a renewed sense of unity this year because the $14 million project to repair the school’s damaged pilings, which were causing the school to sink, has been completed, allowing freshmen to attend.

For the last two years, while the school was being repaired, educators set up a Freshman Academy at the old Lynn Classical building on North Common Street.

Constantino said the academy concept would continue when freshmen arrive in the refurbished building this month, with ninth-graders having their own wing, guidance counselor, and programs focusing on study skills and social transitioning to high school.

In Swampscott, school officials selected Maureen Bingham as interim superintendent to replace Matthew Malone. Bingham, who served as a Swampscott assistant superintendent last year, is the fourth person to lead the town’s school district in the last five years.

Swampscott School Committee chairman Joseph Crimmins said he believes that a strong curriculum base and a group of experienced teachers will help ease Bingham’s transition.

Still, the town is preparing a search committee to hire a permanent superintendent next year.

With more communities searching for superintendents, Crimmins acknowledged that the town might have to pay more than $150,000 to fill the post.

“It’s like free agency in sports,’’ he said. “They get their feet wet, they learn the job, and if they’re good they can get paid more.’’

In Hamilton-Wenham, Superintendent Marinel McGrath came up with a way to save two teacher positions.

Instead of hiring two principals for the middle school and high school, she chose Matthew Fox to run both schools - which share a campus. Fox served as principal of the district’s middle school last year.

McGrath said the district will save $120,000 by not hiring a middle school principal, funds that will be used to pay the two classroom teachers.

“Our goal is to have as many resources in the classroom as we possibly can,’’ she said.