DeWitt: Lack of principal experience stands out in superintendent's new leadership team

Published Dec. 3, 2015

Do district-level school administrators absolutely need experience as principals to be successful? Of course not.

Does it help? You bet.

This may be an obvious judgment. But, coming from University of Florida education professor Linda Eldridge, it's also an unusually well-informed one.

In a previous life, Eldridge served as a principal and a superintendent, and she was named South Carolina's outstanding superintendent while working in the Aiken County School District.

I interviewed her by email for a recent profile about Hernando County school superintendent Lori Romano. I wasn't able to find a place for Eldridge's perspective in that story but thought it way too valuable to leave on the cutting-room floor.

That's because it directly addresses the defining action of Romano's 2½ years on the job: a reshaping of the high-level district staff that included wiping it clean of all but a single year of principal experience.

Among the departures were three former assistant superintendents, who among them had more than 20 years of experience running schools, and former professional development coordinator Cecilia Troutt, who had previously served eight years as a principal in Hillsborough County.

Romano also transferred Jamie Young, a former principal at Powell Middle School, from her job as the district's executive director of teaching, learning and technology back to a school-level position — principal at J.D. Floyd K-8.

Eldridge was a fast-rising administrator in school district offices in Alachua County in the 1980s when the superintendent told her she needed "school-based leadership experience."

Considering, she said, that running a school is a job tough enough to "write a book about," she ended up thinking her boss probably had a point.

Among the varied responsibilities of leading a school:

"I needed to work with parents, teachers, students and staff members. I needed to represent my school in the interactions with district staff and community members. ...

"I dealt with issues such as child abuse, child custody, home evictions, and serious illnesses, behavior problems," she wrote in her email.

When burglars broke into the school, which happened more than once, she was called at 3 a.m., she said.

Because the average income level of the parents of her students varied widely at the schools she led, she learned of the different challenges they faced.

It not only benefited her when she returned to the district office as an assistant superintendent, she wrote, but also provided a level of assurance to the school-level administrators she ended up evaluating:

"I believe that the school principals recognized that I had walked in their shoes."

The value of such experience seems to be appreciated in neighboring districts.

In the smaller school systems of Citrus and Sumter counties, all curriculum staffers at the director level and higher have experience as principals.

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In much larger Pasco, not only does one of the assistant superintendents have experience as a principal, but so do all of its "area superintendents," who cover schools in four different sections of the county.

It's worth noting that the people Romano promoted tended to get glowing evaluations or referrals, while previous evaluations of some of the people pushed aside were tepid or, in a couple of cases, downright negative. No, they weren't all fireballs.

Also, Eldridge cautioned that she wasn't familiar with Hernando's situation and that administrative needs vary from district to district.

So, at this point, we don't really know if Romano's strategy is working. Turning a district around takes three to five years, she said, and this is the first year with her new leadership team in place.

And considering the tension on the School Board over her contract negotiations and her ongoing job search — she was recently named one of nine finalists for the superintendent's job in Osceola County — there's a real likelihood she'll be gone before we find out.

Contact Dan DeWitt at; follow @ddewitttimes.