The job is immensely difficult, the salary's not competitive and there are 561 bosses, including the school board, the D.C. Council, the mayor, Congress and the president of the United States.
None of which will deter dozens of top educators from seeking to be the next superintendent of the District public schools. With Floretta D. McKenzie leaving the post this winter to form a consulting group, the school board has begun the search for a successor.
Board President R. David Hall (Ward 2) says he wants a replacement on the job before McKenzie leaves and the board is working on creating a committee to solicit and screen candidates.
Board members have agreed informally to appoint a committee of about 21 members, including the entire school board and representatives of parents, clergy and business interests.
The committee would screen an expected pool of about 200 applicants, hold public hearings on the issue and return to the school board with a list of from seven to 12 finalists, of which one would be hired by the board.
The mechanics of picking a new superintendent are not yet completely set; decisions are still to be made about whether to hire a search company and who would be on the committee.
But the school system is already abuzz with discussion of candidates and larger questions about just who would want the job.
"Finding someone who can run the school system is not difficult," Hall said. "Finding someone who can understand and deal with the political structure is something else entirely. In the District of Columbia, the difficult part is things like public relations, how you're perceived by the local media, working for 11 school board members and 13 city council members and a mayor and congressmen who on any given day can decide to hold a hearing on what you've done."
Still, several school system administrators in the District have already told associates they will seek to become chief of a system including 87,000 students, 6,000 teachers and 6,000 other employes. And board members report getting calls from college education deans and school administrators around the country.
"This is a grand and glorious time for a search," said James Guines, the District's associate superintendent.
Guines, who has sought the top position in the past, is out of the running this time; he's retiring in July. That's where the opportunity comes in, he said.
The new superintendent, unlike predecessors, will have a chance to build an almost entirely fresh management team.
Both associate superintendents are retiring this year. Three of McKenzie's executive assistants are leaving. And Deputy Superintendent Andrew Jenkins, a political appointee, serves at McKenzie's pleasure.
There are other reasons the D.C. job is attractive:Although the District is only the fourth largest school system in the metropolitan area -- behind Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- it is highly visible because of the proximity to the U.S. Education Department, the national teachers unions and major media.
"There will be a lot of interest because this is the nation's capital and the system has had a favorable record recently," said Dale Gaddy, director of the executive search service offered by the nonprofit National School Boards Association. The District schools have a more stable reputation than they had through most of the past two decades. "The system's not in turmoil now," said Robert Spillane, the Fairfax County superintendent who has seen extensive urban school experience including the top position in Boston. "It's not as though you're going into a war zone." There is work to be done, progress to be made. District test scores still lag behind national averages, especially in the upper grades. And the system struggles with most of the social problems that plague urban public schools. "This is a terrific challenge for someone who wants to make a name in the field," said Roderic Boggs, counsel to Parents United, a D.C. activist group.
But there are also factors that may scare away many of the best candidates, board members and outside experts say. Stress: Because there are so many bosses, the District has a reputation as a school district that chews up superintendents and spits them out, Boggs said. McKenzie has often described her job as one that burns out its occupants after a few years; for more than a year, she has said, she has been worrying that she had passed her period of optimum performance.
"This is a very difficult and high-pressure job, and many people who are most competent to do it may shy away from it," said board member Bob Boyd (Ward 6). "The stress is enormous." Salary: With the superintendent's pay capped at $85,000 because of a District law tying it to the mayor's salary, the school board can't compete with the salaries of $100,000 to $150,000 that many large cities now offer.
"I wouldn't apply here," said a top District school administrator who asked not to be named. "Why should I come here and take on this mess and make no more than the superintendent of a little place like Alexandria?" Alexandria pays its superintendent $83,000.
While board members concede that the pay issue could hinder their search, they believe they can still make an attractive offer. "We can't pay top dollar, but we can put together a good package of fringes," said board member Eugene Kinlow (At Large).
Spillane said the District ought to move beyond traditional fringe benefits and consider a system of community support such as Boston's, where major companies add to the superintendent's pay by appointing him to corporate boards. Confidentiality: In a public search, finalists are exposed to increasingly tough background checks. Board members are now talking about fanning out across the country to interview educators, politicians and news reporters in each finalist's hometown.
Such scrutiny, along with the attendant media coverage, could scare away some good candidates, Hall and Spillane said. Spillane said entrusting the initial portion of the search to a private consulting firm could ease applicants' concerns about jeopardizing their current jobs. Racial politics: The political jockeying in New York has centered on whether the next schools' chief ought to be the first black in the post, a sensitive question in a city where 80 percent of public school students are black, Hispanic or Asian. In Washington, where the public school population is more than 90 percent black and the administration has traditionally mirrored that, racial politics could become an issue in a different way, said Spillane.
The District can attract top-notch educators, he said, but only if applicants believe that the board "is really looking for a track record and not only asking if the person is the right gender, the right race or 'Is the person one of us?' "
School board members are adamant about being open to any candidate, regardless of race or sex.
When the board sets its search committee in motion and polishes its job description to include all the assets it wants in a superintendent, the spotlight will turn to the names.
A few have already surfaced. Deputy Superintendent Jenkins has told friends he wants the job. He did not return The Washington Post's calls last week.
At least two of the four regional superintendents are also expected to apply for the top spot, as are several other school administrators. But board members said they expect most of the attention to be focused on outsiders, and especially those outsiders with experience in D.C. schools.
"There are people within the system who could run it with some strain," Guines said. "Someone from outside the city with no experience here would catch hell. But people who've been in the system and have been away as well will be very interesting."
Several former principals and administrators who moved to management posts elsewhere fit that category. Their names are already floating around school board headquarters.
"We're starting to hear from people all over," Hall said.