School & District Management

Superintendents Under Fire: The Tricky Calculus of When to Quit

By Denisa R. Superville — March 14, 2019 6 min read
Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie survived a recent effort to oust him from his job over his leadership before and after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Superintendents sometimes find themselves the targets of angry calls for their firing even when there’s been no official finding of misconduct or wrongdoing.

Such a scenario has been playing out in the Broward County, Fla., district where a vocal contingent of critics has been calling for the dismissal of Superintendent Robert Runcie over his handling of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which 17 students and staff members were killed.

But are there times when a schools chief should walk away from a job? How can a leader subjectively judge when such demands are valid and when his or her presence is a lightning rod?

The answer is not so clear-cut, said Lance Fusarelli, a professor in the college of education at NC State University.

While superintendents can’t ignore detractors or those calling for their dismissal, they also can’t lead effectively if they are preoccupied with whether a segment of their many constituencies will be angered by an initiative or action. They also can’t dwell on whether a school board member—who, with a majority of the board has the power to fire the superintendent or not renew a contract—would not support them on an issue, said Fusarelli, who conducts research on school and district leadership including the relationships between superintendents and school boards.

“I don’t think effective leaders obsess about that, because then it’s just taking time away from doing what they believe needs to be done,” he said.

“The best superintendents come in with an idea of what needs to be done, they have a plan—they are adaptable, because things don’t always go according to plan. But I don’t think the best superintendents spend hours agonizing about or trying to read the politics of a board or the community. They deal with conflicts all the time.”

But a clear sign that a superintendent should start thinking about whether to stay or leave is if the detractors are succeeding in converting previously supportive groups and board members to their position. That could spell trouble for the district leader’s ability to accomplish his or her agenda and for overall effectiveness.

Other things to consider: Are the complaints or problems widespread? Are they indicative of a larger problem with the superintendent’s leadership? How widespread is the dissatisfaction with the district leader?

What’s more likely to prompt superintendents to leave in such a situation is the personal toll the discord is taking on them and their families.

But at some point, a self-aware superintendent has to ask whether his or her presence is the distraction and is “inhibiting the ability of other educators—principals, teachers—to effectively do their jobs” and clear the way for someone else to step in, Fusarelli said.

“Then I think they can recognize that maybe it’s time to turn over the reins and move on,” he said.

Always an Unhappy Faction

Leading a district in the face of turmoil is nothing new.

Superintendents, especially in urban districts, often face rocky tenures—it’s one of the reasons why their longevity in the job is short: about 5 ½ years, according to a 2018 analysis by the Broad Center.

Parents and activists routinely lambaste school boards and superintendents over budget cuts, turnaround plans, school consolidations and closures, low test scores, and perceived and actual corruption to name a few hot-button issues that lead some school communities to demand the superintendent’s exit.

“There is always a faction that is unhappy, no matter what,” said Meredith Mountford, a professor of education leadership at Florida Atlantic University and a former superintendent in Lake Geneva, Wis.

But few of the reasons that often put superintendents in the hot seat are as sensitive and emotional as what’s driving the most recent—and divisive—calls for a district leader’s ouster.

And experts like Fusarelli and Mountford say they understand the deep grief and strong and immediate need for accountability among the Parkland families.

In the year since the mass shooting in Parkland, some parents and family members of the deceased victims and survivors have led a high-profile campaign for Superintendent Runcie to resign or be fired. They blame Runcie and other leaders in the district for failing to take steps to prevent the shooting.

The families have also raised tough questions about Runcie’s leadership and pace of enacting school safety measures since the tragedy.

And they have found a powerful ally in Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who asked for—and was granted—a statewide grand jury investigation into school safety.

Their push culminated in a school board vote this month on a resolution to fire Runcie.

That effort was led by Lori Alhadeff, a board member whose daughter was killed in the shooting and who ran for her seat largely on Runcie’s performance before and after the shooting. She said the superintendent had exhibited “willful neglect” in his handling of safety.

The resolution failed in a 6-3 vote, following a four-hour long stretch of public testimony during which the vast majority of speakers voiced support for keeping Runcie in the job he’s held for eight years.

Some supporters—many from Broward’s business community—spoke about the need to keep stable leadership for the other 270,000 students in the district. Other allies cited academic gains during Runcie’s tenure and his advocacy and support for black, Latino, and LGBTQ students as a reason for him to stay. A number of Runcie’s supporters in the black community accused those pushing for his ouster of being motivated by racism, a charge that Parkland parents vehemently rejected.

Beware the Snowball Effect

Still, a vocal, sympathetic, and insistent group of detractors could galvanize support and arrest the superintendent’s agenda, said Fusarelli of North Carolina State University.

That can have a snowball effect.

If detractors expand their message from one issue to include others, they can widen opposition and the number of stakeholders calling for the superintendent to leave. As the coalition grows, the calls would become harder to ignore and the crisis more difficult to contain.

What may begin as criticism on school safety, may lead to questioning of district academic progress, management of a district bond, to full-fledged questioning of the superintendent’s overall leadership—a move already pursued by Runcie’s most ardent critics.

In those cases, it’s incumbent upon the school board and superintendent to engage and work with the disaffected group, said Mountford of Florida Atlantic University.

In Broward, for example, they can be an integral part of the school and district safety plans, she said. It has to go beyond serving on a committee, to deeply engaging parents on a school-by-school level on how to make schools safer.

In instances where trust is broken, the superintendent has to be honest and transparent—a difficult undertaking for some schools chiefs because state and federal laws that protect the privacy of staff and students can limit transparency.

In the cases where superintendents can’t share information, they also have to say why that’s the case, Fusarelli said.

“The only way to repair that trust is through constant, open, and active communication—being as honest and transparent as possible and doing as much as possible as quickly as possible,” Fusarelli said.

And in some cases, repairing the trust is simply not possible, he said.

“No matter what you do, it will never be enough,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2019 edition of Education Week as Knowing When to Quit Can Be Tricky for Superintendents

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