It’s an odd thing, realizing you’re older than your elementary school principal was the year you started kindergarten.
I would have sworn back then my principal was old. Turns out, James Bodziak was in his early 30s when he landed his first principal job at South Davis Elementary. Now, at 61, he’s just barely hitting retirement age.
But Bodziak, superintendent of Frontier Central Schools, packed up last week after deciding over the summer that his 40th year would be his last. The decision to cut short his contract, announced at a July board meeting, seemed sudden, but he’d started thinking about retirement in February.
“We were hip-deep in budget deliberations,” Bodziak said. “I realized that I was starting to run out of different strategies to find ways to save money or to cut the budget deficit to stop impacting staff.”
That’s the tough reality of running a school district today. You can cut back on sports, let the grass grow a little longer, but eventually there’s no way around it. You have to get to the staff.
This is a time of tremendous change in schools. Money is tight. Tests have become paramount. Teachers are under new demands. And the standards for what students learn are undergoing a total overhaul just as districts are learning to live within the tax cap.
Back when Bodziak started his first teaching job in a sixth-grade classroom in Orchard Park in 1973, there was no such thing as locked schools and front-door buzzer systems.
“To me, it’s been a tidal wave of change, a tsunami,” Bodziak said.
The rapid change has also taken its toll at the top. Bodziak is just the latest in a wave of longtime educators bowing out. Hamburg, like Frontier, is on the hunt for new leadership. Niagara Wheatfield, Grand Island, Lancaster and Lackawanna will start the year with new superintendents. Clarence and Williamsville are just a few years into contracts with new leaders.
For some, it’s simply time. For others, the fun in education might have evaporated along the budget surpluses. Sure, that’s why superintendents make the big bucks, but who wants to spend their final years axing teachers, angering parents and disappointing children?
Howard Smith, who retired as Williamsville superintendent in 2011 after his 39th year, could have worked longer. There are challenges any year a superintendent retires, but he believed the district needed someone who had more than just a few years ahead.
“I looked at what was on the horizon and I felt that, in fairness to the district, these were five- to 10-year issues that needed to be dealt with,” said Smith, who now does consulting that includes helping districts find new leaders.
Filling the top job, Smith believes, is more challenging than ever. A wave of administrators who started teaching in the ’70s is hitting retirement age just as fewer people want the job and a slowdown in hiring has thinned administrative ranks.
“Educational leadership now, in my opinion, is at a bit of a crossroads,” Smith said.
Superintendents are the voice of the district, and in many ways, the face of the community. How they deal with the rapid change in schools today could make the difference between a positive school environment and a caustic one.
Never before has the choice been more important.