School & District Management

Top Superintendents Detail the Toll of Divisive Politics—And How They’ve Responded

By Caitlynn Peetz — January 17, 2023 3 min read
The four finalists for National Superintendent of the Year speak during a panel on Jan. 12, 2023, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
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The toll of shouting matches at school board meetings and intense political debates over topics like COVID-19 precautions, gender identity, and teaching about race goes beyond the dais, affecting staff morale, potential job candidates, and students’ mental health, some of the nation’s top superintendents say.

During a panel hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association earlier this month, the four finalists for National Superintendent of the Year talked about how political debates are affecting the educators and students in their districts.

Each said that when discussions turn hostile or meetings lose decorum, it shifts the focus away from students and their academic needs.

Over the past three years, a spate of usually docile school board meetings descended into chaos as national political issues about the pandemic and racism filtered down. Some districts have had to increase security; in a few places, community members have been arrested; and some meetings have had to be called off altogether.

The intersection of politics and education isn’t new, according to Matt Hillmann, a finalist who leads the district in Northfield, Minn. But a deepening national rift between political parties has spilled over into schools in a new, more challenging way.

“I think that a little bit of what we have seen turn the rancor is that we’ve gone away from saying we can all discuss big ideas about education, have different ideas about how we allocate resources—those are political discussions, but they should not be partisan,” Hillmann said.

Kevin McGowan, the superintendent of the Brighton Central district in Rochester, N.Y., said he has seen promising teacher candidates decide on different careers and qualified superintendent candidates shy away from leadership positions because of the political debates infiltrating schools.

Teachers spend a “considerable amount of time” trying to balance their work with “concern about what political toes might be stepped on,” which is a disservice to children, he said.

But perhaps most devastating is the impact of adults’ behavior on students.

“It’s affecting students when their identity, their humanity, who they are, where they come from, what they believe in, and essentially who they are as a human being is being questioned by individuals,” McGowan said. “Everything we do as a school district is a learning opportunity for our students. I hope what they’re learning is the courage of school boards and of superintendents who are respectfully listening to different conversations and trying to find space in the middle, not a space that covers up the humanity of an individual.”

Trent North, the superintendent in Douglasville, Ga., said it’s important that districts take difficult moments as an opportunity to lead and teach students the skills they need to engage civilly and more productively in the future.

“For me, it was a motivator to work even harder so that when the next crisis comes, the students that we have won’t have uneducated debates and they won’t repeat history,” North said. “ ... For me, COVID showed a weakness, but I chose to reverse it and allow it to motivate me, motivate my staff and teachers that we have to get it right.

“Because there will be another one, and shame on us if we don’t prepare those who are going through it and equip them to be successful the next time we have a pandemic or crisis,” he concluded.

PJ Caposey, the superintendent in Stillman Valley, Ill., said he believes part of his job is to act as a “blanket,” shielding the rest of the staff from fallout that comes from political issues so they can focus on teaching and caring for students.

During a stretch of particularly tumultuous school board meetings, Caposey said he had items thrown at him while he was in the grocery store.

Those types of interactions affected him. But they also reminded him why he became a superintendent—to lead, to try and influence change, and to create a better community for students.

“As leaders, our job is to take big swings and take big chances on behalf of kids,” Caposey said. “Does that mean our job is comfortable? No. In fact, I think it means we need to make ourselves uncomfortable and to lean into those conversations to protect the kids we are serving.”

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