Panama and Clymer considering sharing superintendent

PANAMA – Sometimes one head is better than two.

This week, the Panama Central School and Clymer Central School boards held a joint meeting to listen to Dr. David O’Rourke discuss the possibility of both school systems sharing one superintendent in the near future.

Two-school, shared-superintendent systems are extraordinarily rare in New York. Only eight other schools (four total superintendents) currently share a superintendent, so data and success statistics are equally as rare. However, O’Rourke, the district superintendent and chief executive officer of the Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES, has researched data on the subject, and presented to both school boards the pros and cons of shared superintendent systems.

“The circumstances at Panama and Clymer that bring them to consider this concept are unique,” said O’Rourke. “Bert Lictus, a life-long and trusted community leader and resident at Clymer, has a proven track record at Panama as an administrator and superintendent. Both districts are forced to grapple with very tough local decisions in their budgets as a result of revenue pressures and an inequitable distribution of state aid.”

According to O’Rourke, the most important benefit to a shared superintendent system is that schools who have already made the switch have reported a savings of $50,000-$60,000 on superintendent salary. For comparison, $60,000 is roughly 1.5 percent of Clymer’s annual budget. Although such savings may seem superfluous, ideally the savings would be realized without any loss of services.

However, O’Rourke emphasized that perhaps even in spite of legislation which legalized the shared-superintendent system in 1981, the practice is still very new, and transitional problems might be encountered.

“There will likely be speedbumps, things that will come up, that we might not have expected,” said O’Rourke. “It is critical to understand that we will be going through a learning period – the whole state will. The boards are going to need to be patient with the fact that some of this is going to have to be learned for the first time.”

In his presentation, O’Rourke listed possible benefits to sharing superintendents as:

Schools could see savings in superintendent salary and benefits;

Clymer and Panama could be an impetus for conversations about consolidation of districts or greater shared services at other schools;

The higher salary that a superintendent would be paid – despite the savings for each individual school – could attract and retain a superintendent for a longer period of time, providing stability in leadership for both schools, and;

A shared superintendent could serve as a catalyst for Panama and Clymer sharing more services at a savings for each individual district.

O’Rourke also listed some disadvantages each school could possibly expect if they decided to share superintendents. The disadvantages he listed are:

Savings may be small when considered in the context of a district budget, and the tradeoff may not be worthwhile;

A shared system limits the time a superintendent has for support and communication with each board, staff members, and students:

A shared system limits “face time” and visibility in both communities with residents, parents and school staff, and;

Boards would need to move to adjust frequency of board meetings, as many boards meet twice a month, which may prove to be too much for a superintendent in charge of two boards.

Overall, it seemed as though both boards and many residents in attendance favored a shared-superintendent system. However, O’Rourke emphasized the meeting served as nothing more than an informational session. He encouraged both boards to discuss individually the proposal, then meet with each other.

Each board had a few questions for O’Rourke following his presentation. One questioned whether there could be stipulations placed to ensure that if a shared system were created, but ultimately failed, the joint superintendent could be returned to his or her former position as superintendent of one school. O’Rourke encouraged both boards to create such a provision, should a merger take place.

“I want to go on record to say that I don’t think that a shared-superintendent system is an ideal system,” said O’Rourke. “But I think districts are forced to contend with it as a possible local option that they have available to them as they try to find solutions to some very difficult, large problems that face the schools.”