Last year there was a surge of leaders leaving the superintendency. This year, the number is expected to dramatically increase. While the tenure of superintendents, especially in urban districts, has always been an issue, the surge of individuals leaving the profession is deeply concerning. While there has been much attention, rightfully so, about the very real teacher shortage, there is also a dearth of candidates, prepared and ready, to take on the mantle of leading the close to 15,000 school districts across the country. Let’s look at some of the leading reasons being cited for this exodus of so many superintendents, which include:

  1. The growing politicization of education: While politics has always played a role in public education, it has intensified since COVID. From mask mandates and vaccination requirements to when to return for in-person instruction, schools were thrust directly into political disagreements about how to manage the pandemic. Even though many of the requirements on school districts were mandated by local, state, and federal requirements, many parents and community members took their frustrations out directly on districts and their superintendents. Just as some of the COVID impacts on schools have been decreasing, schools find themselves at the center of culture wars, with allegations of public education embracing CRT and exposing students to lessons and instructional materials many parents may find objectionable, especially at younger ages. Again, while much of what is being brought forward as questionable materials had been approved by various state agencies, superintendents are being targeted as the driving force for blame and the individual in the district to target for change.
  1. Rise in negativity on social media: while social media has presented some very positive opportunities for schools across the country, many superintendents leaving the profession speak to the challenges of constantly addressing inaccuracies, hostility, and falsehoods on this medium. While individuals can make any number of unfounded accusations or leave out critical information in sharing a grievance, schools are mandated by a number of state and local regulations in responding to these postings. The impact of continuously having to defend the brand of the district and protect employees and students often falls on the superintendent, taking significant time away from the other core responsibilities of the job.
  1. National and state involvement in school board races: challenges between school boards and superintendents have always been problematic. While many individuals run for school board as true servant leaders, there have always been others who run as the next step for political office, those seeking to address past grievances against the district or with a focus on one aspect of the school system. These individuals can prove challenging for any superintendent trying to focus on improving education for all students at all schools. The direct involvement of candidates running at the prompting of national groups or state actors can further complicate the dynamics of an effective school board making many superintendents decide to look elsewhere.
  1. The job is quickly becoming viewed as unmanageable: the job of the superintendent has always been incredibly challenging but recent obstacles have proven to be game changers. A severe shortage of teachers across the country, a problem expected to continue to get worse, masks other shortages impacting districts including bus drivers, food service workers and substitutes. COVID has taken a huge toll on the academic progress and social emotional wellness of students. With a looming recession and runaway inflation, and expiring ESSER funds, school districts are looking at significant budget shortfalls in the near future. Additionally, many school board meetings have become hotbeds of hostility further impacting the work of running a district. One superintendent, who recently announced his retirement after 41 years of service to public education stated, ” the last two years have been more pressure packed than the first 39 combined; I’m done.”

There are many other factors leading superintendents to leave the profession; these are but a sample of what is currently being shared. My next several blogs will focus on solutions to some of these issues and what can be done to attract quality candidates into this role to help fill some of the many expected vacancies.

Considerations Before Leading

With so many anticipated vacancies for superintendents expected next year, there will be a number of current superintendents changing districts as well as new leaders in these roles. While search firms will often share all of the positives about an opening, it is incumbent on every leader considering such an opportunity to do their own due diligence in assessing the opportunity. Ensuring a great match between candidate and district is critically important for students, staff and community. Some things potential candidates may want to consider before “jumping” into a new superintendent role:

  1. Are you “prepared” and “ready?” Occasionally, people tend to conflate preparation and readiness. I contend they are different. Preparation speaks to the experiences, training and past work environments of a candidate that match the needs of the opening. It would be difficult to move directly into a superintendent position from a teaching position or when the educational background requirements suggest a lengthy process to get certified. Candidates should ask, based on where they are in their career, “Am I positioned to be effective at this job on day one?”  In contrast, readiness speaks to where a candidate may be on their personal journey. While a job such as a superintendency may seem exciting, it is also time consuming and extremely stressful. If a candidate is thinking about starting a family or taking responsibility for an aging parent it may not be the best time for such a career move. Perhaps a candidate wants to complete a doctorate or is close to being vested in a retirement system; all these things may give a person pause. Ultimately, it is up to each candidate to know, and be honest with themselves, if they feel prepared and ready to apply for consideration.
  1. Do Your Homework Before Applying: As stated before, candidates must do their due diligence in deciding to apply for a superintendent opening. Not all vacancies are created equal. Some may be open because the previous superintendent retired after a long and successful tenure; other may have seen the superintendent driven out in the latest of a turnstile of change. Some districts may be looking for continued growth and progress honoring the current plans and trajectory; other districts may be looking for rapid turnaround and a true “change agent.” All these circumstances require different leaders and candidates must be honest with themselves to determine if there is a true match for what the school system needs and what the potential leader has to offer.
  1. Make Sure This Is “The Job” Not “A Job.” I often see many aspiring superintendents wanting to jump into the first role that they can get. This is especially true if they are confined to a certain state or geographic area. While they may speak to how loyal they will be to the district to which they are applying, they are already planning future career moves based on getting their first position. To be clear, there is no definitive time that constitutes appropriate service in a district; some leaders accomplish more in a short time as superintendent than others who enjoy a healthy tenure. School boards can certainly cut short the tenure of a superintendent doing exactly what they are hired to do and performing well. However, leadership is about service, and requires integrity and honor. If you apply to a district, there should be an expectation of at least three years of service; this allows time to understand the challenges and opportunities, creating a plan and restructuring, and laying a foundation for the next leader to build upon.

With so many openings expected, there will be many opportunities for aspiring superintendents in this upcoming hiring cycle. Taking the time to assess one’s preparedness and readiness, truly evaluating the vacancy and making sure it is a good fit are all things that will not only serve the potential candidate well, but more importantly, the district they are seeking the honor to serve.