The announcement this week that our high school principal, Layne Millington, has resigned to become principal of Marblehead High brings an opportunity for us to learn from the past and improve the process for selecting and retaining our next high school principal.
There are many things that will always remain outside our control, but other factors we can and should control. We have an opportunity here.
First, we are hearing quite a bit about turnover. People are wondering why Swampscott has so much. Is it a problem unique to Swampscott or part of trend that is occurring in towns and cities across America? If so, should we conduct searches or grow talent from within?
Turnover is the new reality
Before we go too far down that road, we need to look around and see that we share turnover issues with many other cities and towns, including our neighbor Marblehead. Without listing all the changes, it is true that Marblehead has had three superintendents in two years and Mr. Millington will be the seventh high school principal in 10 years. To be fair, at least two of the turnovers in Marblehead were tragically due to illness. But, the point is that revolving doors are hardly unique to Swampscott.
Process is partly to blame
So what is the cause of this turnover and what can be done if anything to avoid it or reduce its ill effects? First, we should recognize that the seeds of turnover may be planted by the public process. School committees hire superintendents. Members of school committees turn over annually in elections. These changes among our publicly elected officials can lead to sudden swings in support for the superintendent. One year a superintendent can get performance reviews where they meet or exceed expectations and the next they are being run out of town, without the courtesy of another performance review. It’s that subjective. Those who conduct performance reviews should always be cognizant of the domino effect they can set in motion.
As the top job changes hands, a chain reaction ensues. New superintendents like to put their own teams in place. While there is much to love about democracy and public process, it may not be the best formula for stability and consistency. At least, we need to recognize the challenges inherent in the system and seek leaders with the skills to excel under the circumstances.
We cry foul when candidates leave after announcing that they planned to stay for a while. In this day and age, when no one has a job for life, we shouldn’t even ask questions about tenure. It seems that candidates will tell us what we want to hear. It may even be what they believe at the time.
Once they arrive and begin the messy work of running a school or a school system with a large cast of ever-changing characters, the task gets complicated. They get burned out.
Digital world presents new challenges
In this new day and age of online blogs and social media, every opinion gets an airing. While the online bloggers today seem sad to see Mr. Millington go, there were many times during his tenure when they might have shown him greater support.
School administrators today take a beating online, often by bloggers who are anonymous and ill-informed, if not mean and hurtful. One loud voice can have a disproportionate impact. It is up to those who feel supportive to say so, loudly and publicly. This is our new reality.
The opportunity given the harsh realities
So what is the opportunity before us given the harsh realities of being part of a public education system today? At the end of the day, Swampscott is a small, quality district and we may always be a stepping stone for talented people who gain experience here. They may come to us with the best of intentions, but as their star rises, they find that other districts want them. They will be recruited. They will find districts that entice them with more money and more responsibility. Someone is always looking because turnover is a shared problem. We may need to consider generous raises to retain talent.
As we get ready to hire another principal and another superintendent, we need to think carefully about what we want our district to look like. There is much to be proud of in Swampscott. Those who actually walk into our high school for an activity such as “Dancing with the Staff” last week will see an engaged student body interacting with a caring staff, having fun, raising funds for one of the many activities available to our students.
It is a supportive environment and also an academically successful one. Our college acceptances rival those of private schools, but there is always room for improvement in our classrooms, on our fields and in our environment.
When we find the right person to continue to build on our success, we need to give that leader a chance to grow and mature in the job. We need to consider it our public responsibility to support the people we hire. That does not mean we cannot offer constructive criticism, but we should stay away from vigilantism and witch hunts.
Turnover is not always negative. We can find examples of positive turnover in our district with both administrators and teachers. Now, we need to take stock in all the positive energy in our district and find the right leaders. This is no time to waste on negativity.