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BGA Public Eye: Illinois public schools chiefs mostly men’s club

Cook County School District 130 Supt. Tina Halliman says she's been in many situations where she's the only woman or minority. | District website

It’s mostly a men’s club for those in charge of Illinois public schools.

While 77 percent of Illinois educators are women, public school districts in Illinois are mostly run by men, who make up 72 percent of superintendents.

Of the 878 superintendents across the state, only 243 are female, or about 28 percent, according to 2015 data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

For minorities, the odds of being a top school official are even slimmer. Only 6 percent of all superintendent positions are filled by minorities — male or female. The vast majority of the jobs — 69 percent — go to white males.

“It absolutely does not surprise me,” said Tina Halliman, an African-American woman who runs south suburban Cook County School District 130.

Halliman, who started out as a special education teacher, said she realized she was in “a man’s world” when she became an administrator.

“I’ve been in many scenarios where I’ve been the only minority or the only female,” Halliman said. “I’m comfortable in that setting, but it doesn’t make it right.”

In recent years, the number of female superintendents in Illinois increased but at a slow pace, according to a Better Government Association analysis of state data from 2002 to 2015.

In 2002, women accounted for 15 percent of superintendent roles while female minorities made up only 1 percent. There are now 35 female minorities, 4 percent of all superintendents, the 2015 data show. Nationally, women hold around 20 percent to 25 percent of all superintendent positions, according to surveys conducted by the American Association of School Administrators.

“You would have thought by now we would have increased by more than just marginal numbers,” said Shelly Davis-Jones, superintendent of Dolton School District 149 in Calumet City. “Women should be flooding the gates . . . but we’re not.”

After starting as a teacher, Davis-Jones worked her way up the ladder in several different school administration positions before landing a superintendent job — a pathway she said was common for more women compared with men.

“Research indicates that women do go through those steps. Men? Not necessarily. Especially white men. Many of them go from the principalship straight to the superintendency,” she said.

The base salaries for female superintendents are comparable with male superintendents, data show. In 2015, the average base annual salary for a woman superintendent was $141,000 while men in the same positions averaged $135,000.

When it comes to other school leadership positions, such as principals, assistant principals or assistant superintendents, women slightly outnumbered men by occupying 55 percent of those roles in 2015. The discrepancy, therefore, was only apparent in the district’s top seat.

It’s unclear why, but a number of factors may be at play, including family obligations or bias among the local board members who do the hiring, said Deb Delisle, executive director of Virginia-based non-profit Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

“Men and women have different leadership qualities and both can really complement a school district,” Delisle said. “You want a variety of experiences and different lenses looking at a situation.”

Anne Ladky, who runs the advocacy group Women Employed in Chicago, said men might vie for superintendent positions earlier in their careers compared with women, who might feel they aren’t qualified and wait longer to apply.

“The other factor is that there’s just a strong bias against women in those high level leadership positions, and it’s very hard for women to get there. There’s no doubt about it,” Ladky said.

Roger Eddy, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, counters that there is “pretty good diversity” among school boards across the state and that the goal among them is to hire “the best possible candidate.” The issue with a low number of women in the top posts, he said, may be that not enough female candidates are applying for superintendent jobs.

“I think the quality is there, just not the same number,” Eddy said. “We’ve got a ways to go, there’s no question.”

Chicago Public Schools is not included in the data. The district’s highest position, chief executive officer, is held by Forrest Claypool, who is white. It’s top education officer, Janice Jackson, is black.