Audrey Spalding
Tuesday, the Columbia Public Schools superintendent announced that she was retiring.

The timing was off. The shuffle of superintendents, either into retirement or among school districts, already happened this year. Most made the transition July 1.

According to the city's two newspapers, at least a few school board members had no idea Superintendent Phyllis Chase was considering retirement until the board's closed meeting with Chase. That's strange, too, though allowable. Chase's contract with the district lets her terminate the contract upon retirement at any time — no notice period was specified. Her retirement is effective Aug. 31.

Within minutes of her announcement yesterday, online comments sprang up on newspaper message boards and blogs, blaming the exiting superintendent for budget and curriculum problems, low MAP scores, and a total lack of community trust in the operation of the school district. In the past, Chase has been criticized for receiving a much-too-high salary — $200,340 — as well as a large car allowance of $7,200 per year.

A major part of my research this summer has been to request and collect the contracts of every single Missouri superintendent (as of today, we have 335). After reading many of those, and speaking with a few superintendents about the difficulties they and their districts face, I think one of the main hazards of being superintendent is the risk of public blame and accusations.

I spent a year reporting on this school district for the Columbia Missourian, so I have mixed feelings about Chase leaving. On one hand, she did seem to control public information tightly, and yes, she was slow to admit mistakes and make fixes. Blame for that rests squarely on her shoulders. However, this retirement looks like she is taking a fall for the district and its other administrators. And it's a graceful one.

According to her contract, Chase's duties as superintendent are:
"[...] charge of the administration of the schools under the direction of the board. She shall be the chief executive officer of the district; shall direct and assign teachers and other employees of the schools under her supervision; shall organize, reorganize and arrange the administrative and supervisory staff, including instruction and business affairs, as best serves the district; shall select all personnel subject to the approval of the board; shall from time to time suggest regulations, rules and procedures deemed necessary for the welfare of the school district; and in general perform all duties incident to the office of the superintendent and such other duties as may be prescribed by the board from time to time. The board shall promptly refer all criticisms, complaints and suggestions called to its attention to the superintendent for study and recommendation."

This paragraph looks like many, many other paragraphs in Missouri superintendent contracts. Basically, the superintendent is the chief organizer, mouthpiece, and goal setter for the district. The larger a school district, the more it necessary it is to have a superintendent. Chase managed a district with about 17,000 students. Though always present and vocal (most contracts require it), superintendents never vote at school board meetings.

So, what about those complaints?

Chase's high salary and benefit package was approved by the school board; any criticisms of her pay should be made to the board members who approved it.

Though Chase has some input, curriculum criticisms should be directed to the district’s chief academic officer.

As for test scores? She's been with the school district for five years, as superintendent. Those scores depend much more on what parents and teachers are doing, and decisions made years before Chase arrived.

The district's budget is one area where Chase can be held responsible. It is her job to set priorities for the district's budgeting process.

The Columbia district spent more money than it took in this year, thanks to the school board adding about 70 employees to its payroll, upon administrator recommendations. When the community realized months later that the school board's decision to do that was causing the district's reserves to decline, outcry was loud and the district's proposed tax levy increase failed this past April, with 62 percent of voters saying no.

Yes, the negative atmosphere of the district's campaign for the tax increase is mostly Chase's doing. But the deficit spending was, again, ultimately the school board's decision. And board members noted at the public meeting, before voting to add the new positions, that they would need to increase the district's tax levy in the near future. The failure of the community to realize this can be attributed, in part, to under-reporting.

The way I see it, a tacit part of the superintendent job description is to be a scapegoat when things go bad. One Missouri superintendent I spoke with, as part of my research for SMI, said he was cast out mostly because of problems after a tornado destroyed nearly all of his school district's properties. In Columbia, Chase is more to blame than that — but certainly not the only one. Instead of staying, she left quietly, stating yesterday (according to Missourian reporters):
"Recently, I was notified by the Public Schools Retirement System that my years of service, coupled with my age, meet the requirements for full-time retirement. After weighing several options, I have decided to retire from the Columbia Public Schools effective Aug. 31, 2008."

It wasn't just one person. Other administrators played a large role in the problems the district faces. So did board members and those who seemed to enjoy stoking negative sentiment against the school district.

But, now, community members should move on from finger-pointing to a braver next step and think about how to fix what isn't working.

If you have any comments about the situation in Columbia, please leave them below, or email me.

About the Author

Audrey Spalding