Always difficult jobs, more Kansas superintendents resigning or retiring early in pandemic
Talk to superintendents, and they will say that much of their job revolves around figuring out how to make decisions that make the fewest people angry.
That way, if you manage to upset 10% in a given year, after five years, you will only have angered half of the community, joked David Howard, superintendent at Basehor-Linwood Unified School District 458.
He was only half joking, and that has become especially clear in one of the most difficult years for Kansas education on record.
Accustomed to the pressures of stretching school funding to make the most of every dollar or making unpopular decisions like declining to have snow days, Kansas' superintendents this year are being pushed past their limits, leading to a significant increase in superintendent resignations and early retirements.
According to data from the Kansas Association of School Boards — which conducts about 85% of superintendent searches for the state’s school boards that use external agencies for their searches — 26 districts were already looking for superintendents at the start of January. That is in comparison to previous school years, when the state’s districts typically see 35 to 45 superintendent openings over an entire year and, at most, 15 at the start of January.
An ongoing trend
The higher-than-usual number of openings at this point in the school year is also something that is expected to multiply as the school year goes on, given the fact that superintendent vacancies tend to come in waves. Superintendent vacancies early in the year are filled with superintendents from other districts, leading to a domino effect that almost guarantees the state will see significantly higher turnover than usual, said Brian Jordan, deputy executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards.
But this year’s marked rise in superintendents leaving their positions is only a spike in the same trend over the past five years, Jordan said. Considering Kansas has 286 school districts, the average yearly turnover of 35 to 45 superintendents these past several years has represented a sizable chunk of the state’s education system, Jordan said.
“If you look at education professionals, there’s a big portion of them that are at that age where they can retire,” he said. “You take what we’ve been seeing happen, and you lay COVID on top of that, and it creates an interesting dynamic of people who could retire and say, ‘This is the year I’m done.’ ”
While the pandemic might be pushing some superintendents to retire or resign early, there still remain superintendents who would have retired or resigned regardless of the pandemic, like Howard, the USD 458 superintendent, who chose to leave the position after 12 years in the district to pursue other options.
Still, Howard said he sympathized with others who have walked in his shoes and made the same decisions he has had to make this year.
“We do the best we can to make decisions based on data and the information that is available,” he said. “Early on, a lot of that information has changed, and politics have been a big part of it too, like if we’re wearing masks. It’s been a tough year. Every decision we make is being scrutinized, probably more so than any other decisions we’ve ever made.”
Looming leader shortage
The concern about school leaders leaving their jobs, or even the industry altogether, extends past the district leadership position. G.A. Buie, executive director of the United School Administrators of Kansas, said other school leaders, such as principals, are under increased pressure and attention to provide education in an impossible situation.
“They’re very tired,” Buie said. “They’re seeing a lot more involvement and engagement, which they’re excited about, but one thing about leadership is they want to do their best to make everyone happy and do their best for their communities. A lot of people say it’s just impossible this year to make decisions that will satisfy large portions of their communities.”
Even in regular years, smaller districts might be prone to increased turnover, because, barring any family ties or personal connections to smaller areas, superintendents often start at smaller positions and work their way up to larger districts, which some might perceive as providing a better quality of life. Most of Kansas’s districts are tiny compared to their larger counterparts — the median district size is 550 students — and districts in the state’s five most populous counties make up more than half of the state’s student population.
“Districts are who they are,” Jordan said. “They can’t move their physical location, so they have to think creatively about who they are and where they are that will be attractive to people.”
Turnover is a similar issue with principals, who might have district leadership ambitions and look to make the move from school buildings to administrative centers.
But that could lead to staffing issues at the lower ranks, especially as Kansas, like many other states across the country, faces an overall educator shortage.
“There has been a shortage of educators for the past few years,” Jordan said. “People who are superintendents were once principals who were once teachers. That has lessened the number of candidates out there who are seeking these kinds of positions.”
“The things that concerns me most is that we’re losing some of the quality people leading our buildings, if they go to the district level,” Buie said. “That’s where there’s going to be a huge shortage, in the principalships. Everyone realizes how difficult and time-consuming that job can be, and we’re not seeing a lot of people wanting to move into it.”
Competing for candidates
While more school boards will have to fill more superintendent positions this spring, that does not necessarily mean searches will become more or less competitive for prospective candidates.
Rather, it will be up to school districts to demonstrate they will provide support for potential superintendents to attract quality candidates, Jordan said. That might include advertising unique aspects about the district, such as highlighting curriculum redesign efforts or major bond or construction projects. The same is true of districts and boards looking to keep existing superintendents in their jobs.
“Your superintendent will stay as long as can they create great relationship,” he said. “The superintendent wants to be there because the board works with them and supports them, and the board wants that person to be there. Building a strong superintendent and board relationship is one of the key things we think will keep someone in.”
Buie said that boards that are looking for a new superintendent should do what they can to make their communities appear inviting, and that tensions from board in-fighting or trouble getting community support for decisions can make a job seem unappealing for candidates.
He compared the tensions from the pandemic to tensions from earlier in the 2010s, when divisions over public education funding turned portions of the public against educators, he said.
“The more communities and leaders degraded educators and blamed educators, we saw fewer individuals go into the education field,” Buie said. “We lose quality educators that way. My hope is we can avoid that this time, because it’s been a traumatic and difficult time.”
For his part, Howard, the outgoing USD 458 superintendent, said he wasn’t too worried about the district’s ability to find someone to fill his shoes, and he said would still encourage others to try the job, or any other school leader position.
“There’s always people questioning, and this year, it’s just been more than usual,” Howard said. “But we have some great leaders out there, and we have them throughout the state, so I really don’t worry too much about that.”