School & District Management

More Superintendents Are Quitting as School Year Begins

By Caitlynn Peetz — August 23, 2023 7 min read
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The abrupt resignation Tuesday of the superintendent of Oklahoma’s largest school district was just the latest in a series of unplanned departures from district central offices this summer as the new school year gets underway.

Tulsa, Okla., Superintendent Deborah Gist said Tuesday that she was stepping down after a year of sharp criticism from state leaders and less than a week into the new school year. The move was intended to avert plans for the state to take control of the 33,000-student district.

Her resignation, after eight years on the job, is effective Sept. 15.

While the circumstances in each case have been unique, an unusually large number of superintendents have resigned or been fired this summer in advance of a new school year, causing churn and uncertainty that could affect staff and students, experts say.

Since the start of July, more than two dozen district leaders have abruptly resigned, retired, or been fired by their school board, according to an EdWeek analysis of local news coverage.

There doesn’t seem to be a universal reason for the departures, but some have come on the heels of tensions with school board members—including those newly elected to their positions—and reflect the increasingly political nature of the superintendent’s job.

In Gadsden, Ala., Tony Reddick resigned, effective Aug. 31, after a series of “contentious situations” with the school board, according to local reporting. In western Cook County, Ill., Superintendent James Henderson resigned Aug. 9 after losing the support of the Proviso Township High School District 209 board when new members were sworn in in the spring.

In many places—like Antigo, Wis., Brooklyn, Mich., Taylor, Mich., Manchester, Ohio, and Hillsborough, N.C.—the reason for the superintendents’ departures has been unclear.

The superintendent in Nyssa, Ore., resigned from his post in mid-July, just two weeks into a new, two-year contract, according to local media reports. No reason was given.

And in June, the Atlanta school board announced it did not plan to renew Superintendent Lisa Herring’s contract when it expired in June 2024. Then, in early August, the board announced Herring would move into a consulting role with the district and a retired Atlanta administrator would be appointed interim superintendent.

‘Strange’ timing

It seems unusual for so many superintendents to depart so close to the beginning of classes, said Rachel White, an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.

“I think there’s a spotlight on superintendents right now, and data about them is limited, so perhaps these things did happen before and we just didn’t notice. But the timing does feel unusual,” White said. “No college football team is firing their coach in August, and in the same sense, a superintendent is the visionary and person really leading the charge, so it seems strange they would be fired or leave at this point in the season.”

Regardless of the reason, turnover in districts’ top jobs can be unsettling for school communities. That is especially true as first-day-of-school jitters set in for students, staff, and parents. The change can “instill a lot of instability and nervousness among everyone in the system,” White said.

No college football team is firing their coach in August, and in the same sense, a superintendent is the visionary and person really leading the charge.

Until recently, information about district leaders’ average tenure, demographics, and previous professional experience has generally been limited to surveys with relatively small sample sizes, analyses from individual states, or research on the country’s largest districts.

This year, White and a team of researchers released data from a four-year project tracking information about superintendents in each of the country’s more than 13,000 districts.

They found that superintendent turnover rates increased by almost three percentage points over the past four years, from 14.2 percent between 2019-20 and 2020-21 to 17.1 percent between 2021-22 and 2022-23, seemingly confirming anecdotal reports that superintendent turnover increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sixty-two percent of school districts had no superintendent turnover across all four years, while 33 percent had one superintendent turn over and 5 percent experienced two or more changes in the position.

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A group of 16 researchers recently made a public call for more research about superintendents, including about their impact on student outcomes and factors associated with retention.

Politics are making the job more difficult

Josh Starr, a former superintendent in Maryland and Connecticut and current managing partner of The Center for Model Schools, said the superintendent job has become more difficult in recent years, as political issues infiltrate district leaders’ day-to-day work. Those political debates—about things like teaching about race and LGBTQ+ history—often put superintendents in the spotlight, creating stress that may push the leaders to resign, or straining relationships with elected officials who then push for their termination.

In a survey conducted in March and April by the RAND Corporation and the Center on Reinventing Public Education, 88 percent of superintendents cited “the intrusion of political issues and opinions into schooling” as a source of stress in their job.

“Politics has always been part of the job, but the conflict is greater than it’s ever been in in any of our professional lives,” Starr said.

In recent years, political debates have pushed more people backed by conservative groups like Moms for Liberty to run for—and be elected to—their local school boards. At times that has taken the focus off of academic initiatives, Starr said.

“Most board members want to serve the community and have very good reasons to do that, but then you get these single-minded people who are seeking controversy and see the board seat as a way to express their fringe desires,” Starr said. “They can block the ability of the superintendent to get the work done that benefits students and teachers and principals, and when you’re no longer able to do what you’re passionate about and hired to do … often those superintendents will choose to leave.”

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Superintendent turnover generally has little effect on students’ academic performance, especially when compared with the impact teachers and principals can have on student performance, according to research. In fact, researchers at The Brookings Institution in 2014 found that districts’ highest-ranking officials account for less than one-half of a percent of differences in student achievement.

But superintendents are credited with setting the tone for school districts, and churn in the top office can greatly affect consistency and progress on district initiatives. Different personalities and priorities can also shape the district’s culture.

“The day-to-day functioning or rhythm probably isn’t going to be disrupted in a significant way, but where you’ll see the difference is the inertia around the bigger stuff … like organizing the system around a transformational equity agenda or creating a new program,” Starr said. “That’s where you’ll see the stall.”

Who’s filling the interim role matters

In nearly every case of this year’s late-summer resignations or firings, the local school board appointed an interim or acting superintendent, who will fill the top job until the district makes a permanent hire. Usually, the hiring process takes several months with several rounds of public feedback sessions and private interviews with candidates.

Often, school boards appoint a person already employed by the district to fill the interim position, which can help during the transition because they are already familiar with the community and district policies and initiatives, White said.

Asking a person who’s unfamiliar with the district to step in, particularly with so much going on to start a new year, “is a lot,” White said.

Staying focused on the students

White encouraged people in districts navigating a leadership change right now to “take a deep breath” and “focus on controlling what you can control,” which is making sure students are taken care of and still getting a high-quality education. It’s important not to get sidetracked by political debates that may have preceded or followed a superintendent’s resignation or firing, she said.

School boards should also be transparent about what happened and the timeline for hiring a replacement, and involve community members in the process of finding and hiring the next superintendent, she said. Staff and community members should have ample opportunity to provide feedback on the qualities they think are important in the next district leader.

“When you don’t know what’s going on, that’s the most anxiety-inducing, so it can go a long way being open and transparent about what’s happening,” White said. “It’s a way to quell some of that nervousness and anxiety.”

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Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.


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