St. Louis is looking for its eighth school superintendent since 2003. Kansas City, Mo., is on its 25th superintendent in 39 years.
Despite good salaries and plenty of perks, a recent study found that 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.
"Would you buy Coca-Cola if they changed CEOs every year?" asked Diana Bourisaw, who left as St. Louis superintendent in July after two years in the top job. "The answer is no. I wouldn't."
Academic accountability is the new national mantra in public education, and low-performing districts are placing high salaries and higher demands on their superintendents -- who find themselves caught between publicly elected 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 Assn. of School Administrators.
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 for 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% received a housing allowance.
Yet it's not unheard of for a big-city opening to draw only a few dozen candidates.
"With all the challenges they're facing, they're looking for somebody who can walk on water," said Stan Paz, a former superintendent and now vice president of McGraw-Hill Education's urban advisory resource team.
Atlanta went through five superintendents in 10 years before Barbara Hall arrived in 1999, said school board member Katy Pattillo.
Pattillo said the Atlanta school board attended "governance training" to better define roles, and worked to get community and business support.
Hall now boasts of academic gains every year since 2000.