School & District Management

Has COVID-19 Led to a Mass Exodus of Superintendents?

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 06, 2021 5 min read
Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Janice K. Jackson, right, speaks on Feb. 11, 2021, during a news conference at the William H. Brown Elementary School in Chicago. In-person learning for students in pre-k and cluster programs began Thursday, since the district's agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union was reached.

The weight of the superintendency is heavy these days: Beleaguered staff. Exhausted teachers. Angry parents.

So as districts enter the spring—prime superintendent-resignation season—it’s a good time to ask: Will it all come to a head in a wave of superintendents racing for the exit doors?

Preliminary signs indicate an uptick in superintendent retirements and resignations so far this year. Two major recruitment firms for superintendents say they’ve been fielding an unusually high number of RFPs, and internal data from EdWeek’s Top School Jobs recruitment site also support this pattern.

Those data are bolstered by anecdotes from worried observers.

“Almost on a regular basis, I hear from a superintendent indicating that they can’t take it anymore and bail out,” said Dan Domenech, the president of AASA, the School Superintendents’ Association. “It’s a combination of stress on the job and being confronted with a no-win situation, when half of parents want their kids in school and the other half want them at home.”

There are reasons to be cautious about reading too much into these early reports. For one thing, high-quality estimates on superintendent tenure are difficult to come by, making it harder to establish a benchmark against which to compare this year’s hiring cycle.

But if the numbers pan out, the experts say, a newer, less experienced corps of superintendents will be charged with leading the nation’s schools come fall—all while helping them recover from months of disarray and while figuring out how to spend a bonanza in federal cash smartly and sustainably.

Search firms say more boards are putting out requests for leadership talent

As a testament to its concerns about superintendent turnover, the AASA recently launched a support network for superintendents who are under duress locally. It has about 25 in the network and plans to expand it to more, Domenech said.

Recruiters say they’re seeing some ominous signs, too.

Max McGee, the president of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, said his firm generally handles about 50 searches in each July-to-June academic year. It is already fielding about 80 searches this school year.

“Some of them are retiring early of their own accord; some are looking to move to downsized districts; frankly, some have been forced out,” he said. “What we’re seeing this year is directly related to pandemic issues.”

Data from EdWeek’s Top Schools Jobs, which offers recruitment and talent solutions, similarly found that listings for superintendent jobs, between July 2020 and April 2021, were up by about 10 percent compared with that same time period in 2019-20—and are on track to outpace last school year’s total listings.

Local news reports also predict similar instability. In Idaho, the pandemic appears to be fueling increased turnover, a trend that began a few years back. About a third of the state’s district leaders will have hired someone new over the past two years, according to Idaho Education News.

Traditionally, most hiring falls in the late-fall to early-spring cycle, but this year, the cycle has been pushed back later in the year, said Michael Collins, the president of Ray and Associates, another search firm. His company also handles 40 to 50 searches a year and is already beyond that mark, at about 65 so far.

“In January, there was this flurry of announcements. It actually happened as the vaccines rolled out and it appeared districts might be able to carry on and go back to live instruction,” he said. “And the superintendents who got picked up by March or spring break, now their [former] districts have vacancies.”

Collins said he anticipates 4,000 to 5,000 more superintendent vacancies than usual this year—some from those who planned to retire last summer but were persuaded to stay on for another year by desperate school boards. Now that infection rates are trending downward, many of those superintendents are finally following through.

National media, meanwhile, have picked up on the striking and unusual sight of the announced departure of superintendents from the nation’s three largest school districts within two months of one another. New York City’s Richard Carranza in March said he would step down. Austin Beutner of the Los Angeles district declined to renew his contract in late April. And just this week, Janice Jackson, who has spent 22 years in the Chicago public schools and became its CEO in 2018, said that she would depart this summer.

Despite national patterns, big-city superintendents are generally staying put

Some observers are cautious about reading too much into those patterns. Top officials at the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 76 such large districts, say so far, the organization’s member districts have fewer openings in the first four months of this year than they typically do.

Usually there are about 12; this year, it’s only up to six, noted Michael Casserly, the executive director of the council, and some of those departures weren’t directly attributable to coronavirus pressures. San Diego’s Cindy Marten was tapped to take a post at the U.S. Department of Education, and Robert Runcie of Broward County, who is now negotiating the terms of his exit from that district, resigned in the wake of a perjury charge related to grand jury testimony over an alleged case of fraud in the district.

In all, said Casserly, turnover in those large urban districts appears to be periodic and more defined by local events than national catastrophes.

“Which is not to say that individual turnovers might not be related to something going on in the ether nationally,” he said, “but I’m not sure that drives turnovers on a grand scale.”

There is no longitudinal, nationally representative sample that tracks how long superintendents stay in their posts and can help pinpoint just how this year’s hiring cycle might compare with a normal one. Most estimates are based on superintendents’ current, rather than their completed tenure.

According to the AASA’s most recent figures, for example, a plurality of superintendents, about 47 percent, are now in years 2 to 5 of the job and about 28 percent are in years 6 to 10. A seminal 2018 report issued by the Broad Center, which offers leadership and management training for district leaders, tracked big-city superintendents over time and found that they stayed about five and a half years—longer than conventional wisdom.

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