Terry Falk

High Rate of Turnover for School Superintendents

Some superintendents leap frog from district to district, advancing their career or salary.

By - Jun 15th, 2020 05:04 pm
Photo by Jan-Erik Finnberg. Image trimmed (CC BY 2.0).

Photo by Jan-Erik Finnberg. Image trimmed (CC BY 2.0).

In March, the Madison Metropolitan School District was all set to welcome its new superintendent, Matthew Gutierrez. Then COVID-19 hit; Gutierrez withdrew his name from consideration stating he could not abandon his current Texas school district during the pandemic. That left Madison where it remains now, considering next steps in its search.

David Botz was all set to retire from the Little Chute Area School District, just north of Appleton. The district was close to hiring a new superintendent when the two finalists pulled their names from consideration, citing the needs of their districts during the pandemic. Botz agreed to delay his retirement for a full year to allow the school district to continue its search.

The School District of Beloit suspended its search for a new superintendent and pivoted to hiring an interim superintendent because of its inability to get proper community input at this time.

This was expected to be a record year for superintendent turnover in Wisconsin. Before COVID-19 hit, Jon Bales, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators (WASDA), stated that there were 82 Wisconsin superintendent vacancies expected for the next school year; more were coming.

The searches slowed down once the coronavirus hit. Yet the current rate of superintendent searches is still higher than it was just a few years ago, says Guy Leavitt, who conducts superintendent searches for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB).

Leavett expects an ever-accelerating rate of turnover within the next year or two. After all, one can be an interim superintendent for only so long; a superintendent wanting to retire will delay not much more than a year.

Just a few years ago, urban superintendents left after five years or less. Jesse Dean Ulrich, who has studied superintendent turnover, points out that the most vulnerable districts for changing superintendents are those with less than 1,000 students. Half of all Wisconsin districts have less than 1,000 students. Wisconsin superintendents now serve a district no longer than three years on average, says Leavett.

That leaves school districts with many questions. What is causing this dramatic turnover? Is a frequent change of superintendents beneficial or harmful to education? If school districts want to keep their superintendents, what should they do?

No satisfaction or moving up the ladder

Jon Bales believes that most superintendents leave due to conflicts with their school boards. He thinks this is directly related to school board turnover. When there are divided perspectives on a board, a change in one board position can change the entire direction of that school board.

On the other hand, John Ashley, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) believes there has been little change in board turnover.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction does not keep such numbers. It appears that no one does. The National School Board Association’s own survey shows the tenure of board members nationally has actually risen, from two to five years in 2010 to 8.5 years in 2018.

Jesse Dean Ulrich, superintendent at Fort Dodge Community Schools in Iowa, wrote his doctoral dissertation in 2017 on the issue of superintendent turnover.

Ulrich told the Wisconsin Examiner that his research does not support the theory that conflict between the school board and the superintendent is the major reason why superintendents leave. He labels this type of conflict “Dissatisfaction Theory.” Other researchers concur with Ulrich’s analysis. We may believe that board/superintendent conflict is a major cause of superintendent turnover because that is what makes the most noise. But most superintendents simply, and quietly, move from one district to another.

Ulrich points to three factors that predominantly explain why most superintendents change districts:

  • They want to move to districts with a higher socioeconomic population.
  • They want a larger district.
  • They are looking for an increase in salary.

These reasons are often interconnected, he says. Poor rural districts with a small student population often do not have the means to give large salaries to their superintendents. Larger suburban and mid-sized city districts often have better test scores, richer citizens and are able to offer larger salaries.

These disparities have resulted in district hopping. Superintendents are more likely to get a salary bump by changing districts than they are by staying put and trying to convince their present school board to increase their salaries.

Sometimes a board hires someone who has never been a superintendent and offers a lower salary knowing the person will likely take the position, says Leavitt. But if this person is doing a good job, the board has trouble convincing their voters to significantly raise the salary. Leavitt says that in this scenario, the community may lose the person to another district.

A good fit

Leavitt, and others who were interviewed for this story, kept pointing to a “good fit” being more important in retaining a superintendent than educational philosophy, skill set or defined roles.  When it comes to hiring, someone who fits well with the district is a quality that is often overlooked.

If a district wants stability in its superintendent, it could hire closer to home, perhaps internally, Leavitt suggests. He believes that districts can put themselves in a good position if their present superintendent is reaching retirement age and is willing to groom a potential internal candidate. Even in such situations, the district may still go through a formal superintendent search.

“They want to demonstrate to the community, as well as the candidate, that an internal candidate has been vetted against others, and we have a win-win here, in that, yes, this person is internal but this person emerged on the top,” concludes Leavitt.

Candidates who are finalists sometimes speak and take questions at a public meeting to demonstrate that they will fit well into the community. However, Bales cautions that boards should not be asking the public to hire the superintendent. No one should be asking for a show of hands at such a meeting putting the decision in the public’s hands. “Hiring a superintendent is the board’s most important role,” he says.

Going home

When it comes to why superintendents change districts, Marty Lexmond checks most of the boxes.

After serving as a central office administrator for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), Lexmond was offered the position as Kohler superintendent in 2010.  In 2012, he took a position in suburban Shorewood. He says he did so because was closer to home, and he had worked with some staff there when he was with MPS. After two years, some members of the community organized a petition drive requesting that the board not renew his contract, questioning his management style. Nevertheless, the board backed him and extended his contract.

But Lexmond moved on, next taking the position at West Allis – West Milwaukee (WAWM). “I saw it as an opportunity to take my urban experience and my suburban experience and combine them,” says Lexmond. The WAWM west side is clearly middle class suburban while the east side is more urban, ethnic and of lower income. “Here I feel like I’m at home in Milwaukee. I know where I’m at.”

The challenges in WAWM were daunting: Achievement was sinking andthe district was in a financial crisis. A funding referendum failed early in Lexmond’s tenure. However, things have turned around, and Lexmond is receiving high praise for his efforts in the newspaper and around the community. Other districts are now trying to hire him away, says Lexmond. “I’m not going anywhere. The board is allowing us to do really interesting work with kids. … The fact that we get to do great work keeps me here.”

Rick Waski was a high school principal in Monroe, Wisconsin, when the superintendent position opened up in the Adams–Friendship district in 2013. He had lived and taught in small towns and felt Adams-Friendship was “a good fit.” In 2017, the superintendent’s job in Monroe opened up; and he saw it as a chance to go back to a community where his two children, who were transitioning to high school and middle school, had memories

Waski says that had he waited a year or two, the bonds his children had formed in Adams-Friendship would have been too great to break. Waski is happy in Monroe and hopes to complete his career there.

In both cases, Lexmond and Waski were going home — or at least closer to home — to communities where they felt comfortable, that were a good match with  their personal experience.

In Milwaukee, William Andrekopoulos was Milwaukee superintendent for eight years, a rare, long tenure for an urban district, until he retired in 2010. This was during a time of shifting school board majorities and major educational challenges. But he was also a superintendent who had spent his entire career in Milwaukee and had no intention of going anywhere else.

Both Gregory Thornton and Darienne Driver who followed his tenure were outsiders. The challenges they faced were no greater than those faced by Andrekopoulos, but they each left after only four years. Thornton never sold his home in Philadelphia and took a position in Baltimore less than two hours from his home. Driver took a position with the United Way in the Detroit area where she previously taught school. She married someone from the area shortly thereafter.

Milwaukee’s current superintendent, Keith Posley, is someone who has spent his entire educational career in Milwaukee. School board members strongly believe he will stay.

Stagnation or instability

Since the No Child Left Behind program started under President George W. Bush, and the advent of state report cards that punish schools that earn “failing” grades, school districts are increasingly under pressure to improve achievement. Poor state report cards may drive a district to hire a new superintendent.

Bales believes that superintendents who are brought in to shake up the districts often have the shortest tenure. Boards may say that they want change, but then the backlash begins. “If you implementa lot of change, you make a lot of enemies,” says Bales.

Madison’s most recent superintendent, Jennifer Cheatham, was criticized by some for poor communications with the community and bringing her own ideas from Chicago that did not always match what Madison schools needed. She is taking a common path of former big city superintendents: becoming a university professor of education, in her case, Harvard. (Madison currently is led by interim Superintendent Jane Belmore and there are 33 applicants for the position in this second round.)

Cheatham’s predecessor, Dan Nerad, was the 2006 Wisconsin superintendent of the year while he was in Green Bay. But his management style and some of his reforms were not always well received in Madison. He moved in 2013 to a Michigan school district after receiving a lukewarm evaluation by the Madison school board.

Nerad now conducts superintendent searches for the WASB and reflects on the difficulties of being a superintendent in a large, metropolitan school district.

“The work is very dynamic,” says Nerad. “It is exhausting work. … Relationships get frayed.” Like Nerad, other superintendents may move on simply because they are drained.

Most educational experts believe it takes about five years for educational reforms to take hold and show results. That might mean a district and school board may have to accept a couple of rough years before realizing success.. When a community seeks to change superintendents midstream, it may not know if it pushed the superintendent out too soon or if it saved the district from certain disaster. After a couple of reform-oriented superintendents, a district may look for a superintendent who brings calm.

Moving ahead

Given these factors, the quandary in a community that currently needs a new superintendent is finding the best approach to the selection process when meetings and interviews are limited by the pandemic. This could make it more important than ever — based on the above expertise — that  a district looks for someone who understands the community and is able to make changes that the community will accept.

The superintendent merry-go-round has temporarily slowed down, but as routines return to normal it will surely begin to speed up as decisions for the coming school years are made.

Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.

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