Leadership void: Why districts are struggling to find new superintendents

Twin pressures of the pandemic and sharp political divisiveness are driving superintendents from their posts
By: | June 10, 2022

There are fewer candidates for superintendent and more open positions at the top than ever before, resulting in a leadership void as schools try to bounce back from years of disruptions, leaders say.

The twin pressures of the pandemic and sharp political divisiveness are among the key reasons veterans and less experienced leaders alike are choosing to abandon their posts, creating “as tight a labor market as I have ever witnessed,” says Paul Gausman, who is taking over as superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska after leading Sioux City Community Schools in Iowa for 14 years.

“This is a tricky time in education,” Gausman says. “The service to students has become more politicized, and many boards have shown the same political divisiveness that we see in the rest of the country.”

During his own recent transition, he found there were hundreds more positions open this hiring season and fewer applicants for each central office vacancy. To stem the exodus, superintendents and school boards who may not always see eye-to-eye will have to find ways to work together to serve their students and communities, says Gausman, who is also president of the Urban Superintendents Association of America and has been involved in superintendent searches as a consultant for over 15 years.

“It appears that some boards believe that if they just get rid of their proven leader, something better will happen,” Gausman says. “That is simply not what is best for students. I have watched boards remove leaders without a plan for the future of their own organization, and it will take years to overcome that short-sighted action.”

And how might the country start rebuilding the pool of candidates for superintendent? Mindsets have to change, Gausman says: “Education will be impacted for many years as a result of the challenges of the politicization of education, the pandemic, and the divisiveness in our country. We will eventually have to get back to the position of placing greater value on educators and educational leaders to entice more into the labor market.”

Great time to grow your own

The depleted pool of candidates could be a sign of the new normal, considering fewer students are graduating college with education degrees. That means the administrator pipeline is not being replenished, says Brian Jordan, executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards. That’s one of the reasons that Jordan is urging district leaders and school boards to focus much more heavily on succession planning when it comes to replacing superintendents.

Superintendents Summit

The District Administration Superintendents Summit offers cutting-edge professional development to school district superintendents and other senior education executives to inspire innovation and leadership excellence in K-12 education. Upcoming events in this series:

Jul 20 – Jul 22: Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, Lake Geneva, WI

Nov 9 – Nov 11: Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, Carlsbad, CA

Dec 14 – Dec 16: Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, Ponte Vedra, FL

Register now!

“You have to identify leaders within your system that display the quality and characteristics that would be a good fit for superintendent,” says Jordan, who often advises school boards that are conducting superintendent searches. “You can’t do that overnight. You have to think two years down the road.”

Jordan’s organization has partnered with the state’s superintendents association to launch the Western Kansas Leadership Academy. The year-long program will prepare cohorts of administrators to move into the top post and navigate the licensing process. “The biggest adjustment aspiring superintendents have to understand is that they will be supervised by a board,” Jordan says. “Whereas they’ve probably had a single supervisor or a boss in every other position they’ve had in their career, superintendents serve boards of education.”

Districts in rural areas are having the added challenge of attracting candidates to schools and communities that are likely less well-resourced. “If you take a candidate who has never experienced a rural school district vs. an urban district, they can go through some culture shock when they have to drive 60 miles to the nearest Wal-Mart.”

‘Drain on leadership’

Leading a district through the pandemic was a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” job for K-12 leaders, says Dan Domenech, executive director, of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. Shifting to remote instruction and following mask mandates angered one group of parents while other families were upset by what they saw as early returns to in-person instruction and loosenings of mask rules. Those conflicts were then followed by fights over vaccinations, critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

3 superintendents to watch: How they’re ensuring education is student-centered

It all led to superintendents receiving an unprecedented level of threats, both verbal and physical. “Their families and children were also being threatened and for many superintendents that was too much,” Domenech says. “They’re willing to be targets themselves but not when it’s extended to their family members.”

Superintendents who were eligible to retire called it a career while younger leaders quickly realized the job had become something beyond what they had envisioned, Domenech says. Even highly experienced and highly regarded superintendents left education while some of their colleagues in other districts were fired by school boards in political disputes. This hostile environment will leave some school boards with no choice but to hire candidates who may have been far from their first choice, Domenech says.

It’s creating an “alarming drain on leadership,” he says.

“Superintendent is the highest paying and most prestigious position in K-12 and there will always be individuals willing to take the job. But they’ll be stepping into a position that’s the most challenging it’s ever been with no practical experience,” Domenech says. “Districts have no choice but to choose from the best of those who have applied and if they’re lucky it’s somebody from within the district.”