Opinion

Should the superintendent live in Federal Way? | Bob Roegner

How important is it that the superintendent of schools lives in the district?

Recently, it was learned that the Federal Way School Board did not include a residency requirement when hiring a new superintendent last year. The board did not want the issue of residency to be a deterrent in hiring the best superintendent available.

At the same time, it was learned that Superintendent Rob Neu had purchased a house and property for horses in the Enumclaw School District. Facilities for a significant number of horses was a family priority.

Although Neu did try and find a property within or near the Federal Way School District, he was unsuccessful.

Neu is just starting his second year in the district, but shows signs of being the outstanding superintendent the board was looking for.

However, the disclosure has raised the issue of the superintendent’s residency as a policy question in the community. Should superintendents be required to live in the district, or is that an outdated concept that hampers hiring the best talent?

Historically here, and in most South King County districts, school boards have expected the superintendents to live in the district in which they are employed. It has been felt that a superintendent should be intimately woven into the community’s fabric.

School board members have felt that as the leader of the school district and its highest paid  employee, the superintendent’s responsibilities were 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also felt that since it was district taxpayer dollars that were paying the salary, the superintendent should set an example and help contribute to the district’s tax responsibility by living in the district and paying his property taxes to the district that employs him.

Visibility and availability at district and community events went with the job. But there was also the secondary expectation of economically supporting local stores, businesses, doctors and dentists.

School boards have also believed that the superintendent, his family and children should be able to identify with the same educational experience and requirements that other parents and students have in the district. This would foster a better sense of understanding. At the same time, it would build credibility with parents and students who might have needs or complaints. Residency also underscored  the superintendent’s confidence in the school system as he and his family were affected by his management decisions, just as much as other parents, and that he shared and understood their circumstances.

Over the years, some school boards have encouraged, although they cannot legally require, other administrators, teachers and staff to also live in the district. The same principle of community investment applied, but boards were also mindful of wanting more “yes” votes for passing a levy. In theory, if more school employees lived in the district, they would help with the tax obligation, but also help with district’s needs through their votes. The superintendent is usually the key public information communicator at levy time, although a citizens committee is critical to success.

But what if the superintendent couldn’t vote for the levy?

Legally, school boards can only make residency requirements of the superintendent, and only as a part of his employment contract.

But are these long-held viewpoints still valid? Or are they outdated reflections of another era?

Many years ago, people lived and worked in the same community and only left town for vacation or to visit relatives. They shopped on Main Street and their social fabric was locally based in schools and churches.

But growth and urban sprawl has changed that, and resulted in some residents not always knowing where one city ends and another begins.

Economic studies note that it is common for people to live in one city, but work in another. They plan their demographic sales campaigns accordingly.

In fact, this trend became so common that we built freeways to help people commute. Then because there were so many commuters and the freeways were full, we started building mass transit.

Some of the reasons for having the superintendent live in the district are substantive, but others appear purely symbolic. Are they still valid?

In today’s fast-paced society, communities are interconnected. Instant communication and hands-free telephones in our cars allow us to work while commuting. Computers allow us to work from home any time of the night or day. In most jobs, where you live isn’t an issue. Does it really matter where the superintendent lives?

What if the residency requirement prevents a district from getting the top-flight leader they want and need?

Your typical superintendent may work 60 to 80 hours per week. A non-resident superintendent can probably still get to all the district and community events.

How should school boards balance work responsibilities with home and family life for its superintendent? While the board only hires the superintendent, his family’s needs are always a major part of any candidate considering what job to take, or where to live. How should the board treat this integral part of the employment process?

The employment contract agreed to by the board and Neu does not contain a residency requirement.

Neu says his preference was to live within or near the district, but after looking for more than a year, he couldn’t find a home that met his family’s needs.

School board members say they would have preferred residency as well, but that good superintendents are hard to find. What really counts, they say, is Neu’s job performance and that his family is happy and comfortable. By all accounts, the school board is pleased with Neu’s job performance and Neu’s family is happy with the new house and property.

The contract between Neu and the school board is in place. But what about future superintendents? Should they be required to live here, or is residency an outdated view of a bygone era?

 

 

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