St. Louis is looking for its eighth school superintendent since 2003. Kansas City is on its 25th superintendent in 39 years. A recent study found...

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ST. LOUIS — St. Louis is looking for its eighth school superintendent since 2003. Kansas City is on its 25th superintendent in 39 years.

A recent study found that despite good salaries and plenty of perks, the average urban superintendent nationwide stays on the job only about three years — which educators say isn’t enough time to enact meaningful, long-lasting reform.

The 46,000-student Seattle School District has had three superintendents in five years. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, most recently the superintendent of Charleston County, S.C., took Seattle’s helm last year.

On Friday, Kelvin Adams signed a three-year contract with the St. Louis district worth $225,000 annually plus bonus incentives, a day after his hiring was approved by a state-appointed board that oversees the district.

Adams figures he can buck the trend of superintendent turnover. “I am absolutely focused on one thing: student achievement,” he said.

Academic accountability is the new national mantra in public education, and low-performing districts are placing high demands on their superintendents — who must answer to school boards, teachers unions and parent groups.

“I consider that to be the toughest job in America,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.

Kansas City’s school board has gained a reputation for micromanaging the district and end-running its own superintendent even as test scores languish year after year.

One school-board member abruptly quit this past week, and in a resignation letter scolded her colleagues for not doing enough to address district accreditation problems.

Even superintendents with strong track records aren’t safe. Rudy Crew, honored by his peers for improving schools in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, was effectively fired by his board this month when the remainder of his contract was bought out. Critics said he mismanaged the budget and didn’t build ties with communities. He was there four years.

The 2006 study by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of some of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, reported an average salary of $208,000 among the nearly 60 urban districts it examined. More than half of those superintendents got a car or mileage allowance, more than one-third got financial bonuses, and 2 percent received a housing allowance.

Yet it’s not unheard of for a big-city opening to draw only a few dozen candidates — a testament, experts say, to the job’s professional and political demands. Thirty-five people applied for the St. Louis job.

Urban flight to the suburbs has plagued St. Louis since the 1950s. The population, more than 850,000 in 1950, is now about 350,000 — a loss of tax base that one superintendent after another has struggled to overcome.

The situation got so bad last year that the Missouri Board of Education stripped the district of accreditation.

A three-member board was appointed last year to oversee the district. But the locally elected school board remains in place and its members often second-guess the state panel’s moves.

Diana Bourisaw was hired as superintendent in 2006 by the elected board. When the state-appointed board took over, members decided that with the new oversight the job should be advertised. Bourisaw was encouraged to reapply but declined.

Bourisaw said urban districts often face issues such as poverty, immigration, frequently moving or homeless students and safety concerns that extend beyond education.

“School boards like to hire someone to come in and rescue the district,” she said, “and one person can’t do that.”

After a decade in St. Louis, Lori and Eric Peterson and their children are moving to the suburbs because they feel the district has let them down.

Already this school year, fourth-grader Isabella has once arrived home an hour late because the fill-in bus driver didn’t know the route. Third-grader Zain is worried his grade may still be split into smaller groups, potentially taking him away from classmates he began the school year with.

Lori Peterson said she has complained, but to no avail.

“Do we stay and try to prove a point that we’re ‘city’ people?’ ” she asked. “Or do we leave because that’s in the best interest of our children?”

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.