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Feeling Pressure from Politicians and Parents, More Superintendents Quit

Teachers aren't the only educators walking off the job. At least 30 percent of districts in every state have seen superintendent turnover in the past five years.

Teacher instructing kids in North Dakota
(David Kidd/Governing)
Editor's Note: This article appears in Governing's Spring 2024 magazine. You can subscribe here.

“I have a little group, eight of us, from large suburban school districts who get together once a month,” Curtis Finch, a superintendent in Arizona, shares over Zoom. “I’m the last person from the original group left standing.”

Like most superintendents, Finch has already had a long career in education. From small rural districts in the thumb of Michigan to his current seven-year stint at Deer Valley Unified School District, which serves parts of Phoenix, Glendale and other suburbs, he’s experienced change at every stage of his career. Today, shifting attitudes around public education and school superintendents have drastically impacted the career longevity of his peers. That leaves him eyeing the future warily. It would not be at all far-fetched, in Finch’s view, for him to lose his majority of supporters on the school board in the next election.

Over the past 20 years, superintendents’ careers have switched from being pretty stable to highly volatile. Between 1975 and 2002, their average tenure was six to seven years. Now, it’s just one to three years. That, of course, translates into more districts experiencing turnover. Prior to the pandemic, the average turnover rate in states was about 12 percent. Now it’s much higher. In West Virginia, it’s more than a third. Other states — Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico and North Carolina — have seen turnover in more than a quarter of their districts in the past year alone. It’s bad for kids when teachers leave the classroom, but each superintendent’s departure can have an impact on thousands, or tens of thousands, of students.

Superintendent shortages are part of the continuing fallout in education from the pandemic. Superintendents are still facing contentious school board meetings, only now they are often recorded and posted on social media. They may face harsh — and increasingly personal — criticism from communities over policy choices or curriculum. Increasing numbers of superintendents have reported receiving threats, something that would’ve been nearly unthinkable in previous decades. These things combine to create an environment that superintendents complain makes it hard for them to do their jobs effectively. A RAND report found that nearly half of the superintendents surveyed either intended to quit within three years or face uncertainty about being able to stay in their positions.

They’re now working 67 hours a week, according to the RAND survey, representing a 15 percent increase compared to already lengthy 59-hour weeks prior to the pandemic. Turnover actually went down during the COVID-challenged school year of 2020-21, with many superintendents feeling a responsibility to stay and see their districts through, according to Rachel S. White, founder of the University of Tennessee’s Superintendent Lab. But turnover has since spiked. White’s data shows that no less than 30 percent of districts in every state have experienced at least one superintendent transition over the past five years.

Some districts have experienced multiple changes of the guard, with superintendents leaving of their own volition — retiring or moving to different districts they think will suit them better — but others being replaced by boards that have become more politicized. School boards have always been political — their members are elected, after all, with teachers unions always playing an active role where they can. Still, these elections have become more polarized, with national organizations such as Moms for Liberty on the right and Run for Something on the left helping to recruit and train candidates. RAND points to “the inclusion of political issues into schooling” as the primary source of stress for superintendents, with 88 percent viewing political concerns as detrimental to their jobs. These numbers are slightly higher for women and superintendents of color.

New school board members often come in ready and eager to replace superintendents. “We’ve had a couple of cases in New York where people ran for boards to unseat superintendents because of their lifestyle or their perceived philosophy,” says Cosimo Tangorra Jr., of New Hartford Central Schools, who has worked as a superintendent for 22 years in various districts across New York state.

That contributes to the lack of stability, not just for the affected superintendents but their staff and students. When a superintendent leaves a school on short notice due to being ousted or not having their contract renewed, it can lower staff morale and harm the implementation of long-term goals and policies. According to AASA, The School Superintendents Association, 70 percent of superintendents reported having contracts of three years or less. Constant churn certainly doesn’t help them build relationships or institutional knowledge.

These days, a lot of superintendents feel they lack support from politicians, their local boards and parents. Given such complaints, it’s no wonder so many are walking away.
Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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