School & District Management

Wanted: Superintendents to Lead Districts Through the End of a Pandemic

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 07, 2021 4 min read
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner speaks at a news conference at the school district headquarters in Los Angeles on March 13, 2020. Beutner will step down as superintendent after his contract ends in June, he announced Wednesday, April 21, 2021.
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Public outrage, low teacher morale, school board infighting, and threats of physical harm. No wonder so many superintendents this spring are thinking about quitting.

The question for many is: When is a good time to leave, anyway?

“Part of this is just the viciousness of the public—superintendents having to get protection from the police because of death threats and that kind of thing—and that seems worse than it’s ever been before,” said Joshua Starr, a former superintendent of Maryland’s Montgomery County and now the CEO of PDK International, an education nonprofit.

And while most superintendents are good at reading the tea leaves of brewing controversy and preparing to deal with it, the unprecedented and fast-evolving nature of the pandemic has pushed difficult decisions and all their related political blowback down to the nation’s 13,500 districts.

“It’s not like it’s a policy to de-track the schools, or start school later, or close a school—the stuff you know how to prepare for and you know you’re going to get criticism for,” Starr said. “That’s a rational conversation you can have with your community, to a certain extent. But reason has left us in the pandemic.”

Bernadeia Johnson, a former Minneapolis superintendent, said one clear signal that it’s time to leave is when a superintendent can no longer be effective at the core of the job: improving student learning. As fallout over districts’ pandemic learning plans yields calls for changes to both superintendent and board composition, more could find themselves in that situation.

“Superintendents recognize when they’re not able to move the academic agenda they want to. And some of it is pushback of the community and the board,” said Johnson, now an assistant professor at Minnesota State University Mankato. “But it’s also understanding that when you’re not effective moving in spite of all that, or in consideration of all that, then it is time to leave because you can’t get the work done.”

Austin Beutner of Los Angeles said his recent decision was informed by the endless pressure of the job. But he also said that he’s comfortable with leaving now because the 650,000-student district has turned a corner and appears now to be on a good trajectory forward.

Over three years, the district has decentralized significantly, putting more decisionmaking in the hands of 44 smaller regions; launched a major early literacy initiative; and, during the pandemic, served more than 128 million meals and provided internet and devices to thousands of students, he said in a recent interview with Education Week. Those efforts have helped renew community trust in the sprawling school system, he said.

“As anyone in public education, and maybe superintendents in particular, would acknowledge, it’s a 15 hour a day, seven day a week job, truly,” he said. “I committed three years, I will serve three years, and ... we’re at a place where things are going in the right direction.”

New opportunities for advancement, but new challenges, too

Hiring experts say that as they field a larger-than-normal number of replacements in the superintendency, they’re likely to come from new sources. They have been putting fewer standing superintendents in front of boards and more candidates drawn from top-level administrators, like chief academic officers and curriculum supervisors, who are itching for their first crack at the top job.

This year’s hiring cycle will have downstream effects in the years to come, as cabinet-level officials move to the superintendency, principals move into the central office, and so on down through the district ranks.

Superintendents who are looking for a fresh start in a different district could have some opportunities, too. “But they have to come with the perspective: ‘This is a new opportunity and this is a great fit for me.’ Not, ‘I need to get out of Dodge here and cross state lines and all will be well there,’” said Max McGee, the president of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, a national search firm that specializes in top district talent.

See Also

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.
Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Janice K. Jackson, right, announced earlier this week that she would depart the school system. Jackson, who assumed the superintendency in 2018, has worked for more than 20 years in CPS.
Shafkat Anowar

Details about the hiring process are changing, too. Interviews are now routinely conducted on Zoom. With board meetings available for live-streaming for all to see, candidates are better prepared and more knowledgeable about hiring districts’ dynamics—and drama—than ever.

“They are doing more homework and more research and calling with more in-depth questions than I’ve ever seen before,” said Molly Schwarzhoff, the vice president of Ray and Associates, another talent organization. “I keep having to tell these board members: You are being interviewed right this minute.”

And forget about “instructional leadership,” the buzzword of the last few years. School boards are now looking for superintendents with excellent communication skills and a commitment to an equity agenda, said McGee.

Beutner said that, while Los Angeles’ school board will make the ultimate call on who leads the district going forward, the district has some strong candidates within its own ranks now.

“One of the things I was very purposeful in doing was rebuilding the bench, making sure that succession could come from internally. I think a reflection of a well-run organization is that it has leaders from within,” he said. “So many large urban districts suffer from a lack of continuity of programming and lack of continuity of leadership.”

Succession plans are important, if sometimes politically tough to execute, Starr of PDK agreed. But regardless of a hire’s prior experience, sitting in the superintendent’s chair for the first time is a different animal.

“You need enormous support, coaching, guidance and mentoring, because it’s a completely different job. You can be the best principal supervisor or curriculum director in the world, but you’re not managing down anymore,” warns Starr. “You’re managing up and out, to a board and to the community.”

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