Bigger can be better for superintendents
In offering a final farewell to Sherman, outgoing Superintendent Michael Ginestre said all the right things. Through almost a decade at the district, he understood the commitment and connections that needed to be made during his tenure with those not only in the school, but in the community.
“The people here, they’re not only friends, they’re family,” he said. “It’s a bittersweet situation I’m in because the people here have been great to me and my family.”
After five years in the top position, Ginestre is doing what so many of his colleagues have done. They have used the tiny districts of Chautauqua County as a springboard of sorts.
Ginestre recently accepted a job at the Sweet Home district in Erie County, which has an enrollment that is nearly 10 times the size of Sherman at nearly 3,300. Its demographics also are appealing as there is a greater deal of wealth in the region.
Sweet Home’s annual budget totals $83 million — $73 million more than the district he is leaving. On top of that, Ginestre has strong connections to the Buffalo area.
How could he say no?
Residents here are not unlike those in the rest of the state. They are very territorial when it comes to their small schools that keep existing no matter how low the numbers go. For the record, of the 19 districts in our coverage area, 12 have enrollments that are below 1,000 students while only two — Jamestown and Dunkirk — are above 2,000.
For the educational administrators who come to Chautauqua County — especially for those not from here — management posts are a precursor to taking significant positions in larger schools. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but sometimes superintendent leadership in small schools can be a revolving door.
Some area schools, as we know, have been fortunate. Panama has a home-grown guy in Bert Lictus. Forestville found a keeper in Renee Garrett while Cassadaga Valley and Silver Creek kept their choices local in selecting Charles Leichner and Todd Crandall, respectively. Most of the names in this list are likely to stay until they retire.
That is a good outcome. However, finding someone to fill the void is not getting easier. Dr. David O’Rourke, superintendent of Erie2-Chautauqua Board of Cooperative Educational Services knows the drill all too well.
In overseeing some 27 districts in his region, O’Rourke has become an expert at these searches. Through his tenure, it must be noted he has had great success in finding those who will be committed to the communities they serve.
That was not always the case. More than a decade ago, there were numerous superintendents who oversaw county schools while living in the Buffalo area or commuting from elsewhere.
From this perspective, those leaders never made sense. Superintendents, in many of the 19 districts, are some of the highest paid individuals in these small towns and cities. Not living where they worked was a disservice to district residents because they failed to generate a connection to the community outside of the school. In addition, they were spending their locally earned dollars elsewhere.
Just how much are the 19 superintendents costing taxpayers? According to seethroughny.net, the total exceeds $3 million in 2020 with salaries ranging from $190,000 to $122,500 per year. Add in generous benefit packages that include health insurance, a pension and other perks and the total rises to more than $4.3 million.
In the full scheme of things, the 2020 salaries for these 19 area districts equated to more than $205 million. All superintendent salaries made up about 1.5% of that total.
That, in the big picture, is a drop in the bucket.
However, leadership is serious business. This county has seen the good and bad in superintendents. It is no different than those we elect. Some are engaged while others are only along for the ride.
Gone are the days when school chiefs make a career at one district. Today, thanks to the growing demand for administrators across the state, these individuals can just about write their own ticket.
That means higher costs for every school — no matter how big or small.
John D’Agostino is editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (716) 366-3000, ext. 253.