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Superintendent struggle: COVID-19 pandemic, incivility likely to blame for exodus of school leaders, experts say

Central Valley School District Superintendent Ben Small speaks to the crowd gathered for the announcement of a new Spokane Valley Performing Arts Center, Nov. 1 at the Tru by Hilton hotel in Spokane Valley.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Central Valley School District Superintendent Ben Small speaks to the crowd gathered for the announcement of a new Spokane Valley Performing Arts Center, Nov. 1 at the Tru by Hilton hotel in Spokane Valley. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

In announcing his retirement earlier this week, Central Valley Superintendent Ben Small said he was eager for the proverbial next adventure after almost 14 years in charge of Spokane County’s second-largest school district.

Whatever the reason, Small’s departure at the age of 57 is part of a recent state and national trend that has education leaders worried.

Across the nation and the state in the past year, school district administrators have left public education in record numbers.

The reasons are not surprising: the COVID-19 pandemic, staffing shortages, controversy over critical race theory, and a lack of civility during board meetings and other interactions with the public.

While Small didn’t mention it, Central Valley has faced all of the above and more. Instead of uniting against the pandemic, the district was cleaved by politics at almost every level.

But the problem goes far beyond Spokane Valley.

“There’s no doubt that we are seeing the greatest exodus of leadership at the district level that we have seen in this country,” Dan Domenech, executive director of the American School Superintendents Association, told Newsweek recently.

“The numbers that are just walking out the door, the numbers that are retiring early and the numbers that are being fired because of the controversies that exist around the country,” Domenech said. “The turnaround is significant.”

While the ASSA doesn’t keep detailed records, the Washington Association of School Administrators maintains a close watch on the numbers.

In a typical year, superintendent turnover in the state’s 295 public school districts averages about 40. However, this year, 60 superintendents are new to their jobs, said Joel Aune, executive director of WASA and former superintendent in Colfax.

“The last two years have been rough on everybody,” Aune said. “It was, and still is, a 24/7 job – there’s always pressure – but the last two years have been at another level, whether it’s enforcing mask mandates, vaccination requirements, the whole bubbling up critical race theory; it’s created immense stress.”

Small is the latest superintendent to leave a school district in the Inland Northwest.

Spokane Public Schools’ Shelley Redinger left in June 2020, when the pandemic was in its early months, for a job in the Tri Cities, where her husband works as a nuclear engineer. A year later, Steven Cook left the Coeur d’Alene School District for an opportunity in a larger school district in Bend, Oregon.

The cost of that churn extends beyond the school district, Aune believes.

“School district leadership does matter,” Aune said. “That leadership continuity matters because there is a correlation between leaders and the effectiveness of schools.”

Some believe it matters more than ever during the pandemic.

Michelle Reid, superintendent of the Northshore School District north of Seattle, told Newsweek that “leadership is illuminated when there’s no roadmap to a solution.”

“Leaders traditionally like to solve problems and improve things for those they lead and in this case, the pandemic isn’t a problem that we’ve been able to resolve,” Reid said.

While it’s difficult to gauge the reasons for each departure, there’s some indication that many superintendents in the state stuck it out during the first year of the pandemic but called it quits as the crisis threatened to impact schools for a third straight year.

According to WASA figures, 47 superintendents were new to their jobs in 2018 and 44 the following year. That dipped to 39 in 2020 before rising sharply in 2021.

“Over the last two years, we’ve seen some people who had no intention of retiring, who just absolutely loved the work and kept going year after year,” said Nick Polyak, a superintendent in Illinois. “Then they said, ‘This is it. This is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and I’m done.’ ”

For public school administrators, the rewards can be great. Even in smaller districts, superintendents in Washington earn upwards of $125,000 annually. In 2020, Small earned $205,000 plus benefits.

Superintendents are also at the top of their profession – leaders and difference-makers whose decisions affect the education of thousands of students.

Small spoke this week of his pride in the partnerships forged between the district and the Spokane Valley community, and the commitment to improving the district even as it grew.

“We have been able to provide a vision for our community, and that growth can be a positive thing,” Small said. “Building on the bond in 2015 and again in 2018, that gave us momentum.”

However, that momentum was stifled by the pandemic and the schisms that accompanied it. Other districts experienced the same discord, some of it stemming from divisions within school boards.

“It’s always been political, but we’re starting to see partisan politics come to the school board,” Aune said. “I just don’t recall seeing that before.”

For many, the negatives of the job have proven to be too much.

In a survey conducted last year by the National Superintendents Roundtable, almost two-thirds of school superintendents (63%) said they have contemplated leaving the job.

While some were already planning to retire during the 2021-22 school year, more said they were driven by “the stress of the no-win situation” in which they were finding themselves.

As one superintendent explained, “The whole political circus that this terrible public health crisis has turned into is tragic. Antimaskers and anti-vaxxer parents have turned into combative activists, while 50% of parents want completely in-person education with no restrictions, and the remaining 50% want remote learning or every mitigation strategy in place, including a universal mask requirement.”

Many respondents reported receiving personal and family threats, having people follow them home from school board meetings, and becoming the target of vandalism.

Those who stayed were motivated by dedication to work, students and staff, and the hope that this year is an anomaly that will fade away soon.

“That is yet to be determined,” Aune said. “But it feels like we’re going to see bigger-than-normal numbers again this year.”

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