The Tyranny of Superintendents

Let Them Eat Cake!,” by Nathan Shock, Fresh Blue, 30 April 2006,

Earlier, tdaxp reported on the insane powergrab of John Mackiel, Superintendent of Omaha Public Schools, that ended with the Nebraska legislature dismembering OPS. Now Pam Homan, Sioux Falls School District superintendent and noted grinch, is seeing what she can achieve.

The first public misstep was to continue defending a hopeless lawsuit from teacher Barbara Wigg, who had sued when Homan’s predecessor told Wigg she could not help lead an after-school Christian activity for children at her school. Wigg won, but not before the district appealed multiple times. When the school board finally decided to drop the suit, the Argus Leader savaged them in a Dec. 17, 2004 editorial saying it’s “the first smart thing the district has done since this mess started.” The school district was also forced to repay Wigg’s court costs and their total bill (not covered by insurance) for the suit was $154,000.

There have been other smaller miscues (rules were changed to allow Homan to reside outside the district, the football bus scandal, etc.), but the latest public relations blunder takes the cake. It’s almost too much to comprehend. The school district is barring two high school seniors, Jake Wampler and Nick Kelly, from participating in graduation ceremonies later this month. Why? Because they failed too many classes? Were caught with illegal substances? Had too many detentions?

Not even close. Kelly is one credit short after missing almost a year of high school due to a battle with leukemia. Wampler, who is five credits short, had his heart stop last year during football practice and he’s been undergoing treatment for a brain injury. Sounds like a couple of slackers, huh?

The two seniors’ classmates are threatening to boycott the graduation ceremonies. Read the entire story. The responses of Homan and the school board are unbelievable. I can’t remember a government institution ever coming off as badly as in this case. Two kids, who have battled life-threatening illnesses, persevere and come so close to graduating are being denied the opportunity to walk across a stage with their classmates. It would be hard for Disney to come up with a more vile villain.

Argus Leader executive Editor Randell Beck has written yet another editorial critical of Homan, saying that she’s once again staked out ground that is legally sound and morally indefensible. He asks the question: can someone explain to me how our society would crumble if we allowed Nick Kelly and Jake Wampler to join their Lincoln High School classmates at graduation ceremonies next month?

The bizarre administration of Pam Homan will be long remembered in Sioux Falls. While I have rarely met Homan, I have often met with people extremly close to her, and her tenure has been a complete shock. An evangelical-fundamentalist fight a fool’s errand to keep Christian after-school clubs away from campus is one thing. Someone who bended the district’s rules so she can live in another district, while keeping students who fought for life away from graduation because of a summer’s worth of credits, continue this.

South Dakota’s Sioux Falls Schools District, like Nebraska’s Omaha Public Schools, is always in the public eye. As the biggest and richest districts in their states, SFSD and OPS have to be aware that the rural majority of their states want to see them gone.

Risking negative publicity to do good may be wise. Risking everything for a power trip, as Superintendents Homan and Mackiel are, probably isn’t.

2 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Superintendents”

  1. Unsurprising. There are many fine administrators out there but the field really seems to attract authoritarian personalities far outside what you would expect as a percentage of the population.

    Why is that ?

  2. Mark,

    The tragedy of this case is that SFSD thought they had learned from the previous superintendent — a careerist who began looking for other jobs a year after he took the helm at Sioux Falls. So they found someone from a nearbye community with a really good reputation.

    My interaction with people close to Pam has always been extremely friendly. Yet this reaction to her is universal.

    Ironically, the superintendent of the district she is from is resigning, after 40 years of continuous service in the district.

    Perhaps it's a warning that hiring outside of an organization is dangerous. Jack Welch made a similar comment in BusinessWeek recently, blaming lack of internal succession planning for high CEO pay. Perhaps it is an application of the same problem to another sector.

    Atlernatively, the extremely steep (and often vertical) nature of school hierarchies attract that type. As Hayek said, it's the worst who get to the top.

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