As the Fort Worth school district begins its search for a new superintendent, it will be competing with hundreds of other districts across the country that are also searching for new school chiefs.
Districts across the country have seen a mass exodus of school administrators over the past two years as pressure from the pandemic and ongoing culture wars around education have changed the nature of their jobs.
The Fort Worth school district is searching for a replacement for current Superintendent Kent Scribner, who is stepping down from his post on Aug. 31. On Tuesday, the district’s Board of Trustees voted to hire Hazard, Young, Attea Associates, a search firm based in the Chicago area, to handle its search for a new superintendent. During a presentation to the board in March, Nola Wellman, an associate with the firm, predicted the district’s search would generate so many applicants that it will be a challenge to narrow the candidate pool.
But experts both nationally and in North Texas say the large number of vacant superintendent positions across the country, combined with the large number of experienced school administrators who are leaving education, could make it difficult for districts like Fort Worth to find a qualified candidate for the job.
Fort Worth joins Dallas, Boston, Minneapolis school districts in search
Fort Worth is one of about 10 districts in North Texas that are seeking new superintendents. That list also includes the Dallas school district where superintendent Michael Hinojosa plans to retire at the end of the school year.
But Fort Worth and Dallas aren’t the only major urban school districts in the country that are searching for new school chiefs. The superintendents in the Boston and Minneapolis school districts are also stepping down at the end of the current school year.
Nationwide, schools are seeing a sharp uptick in turnover among superintendents. According to a survey released in January by the ILO Group, an education policy consulting firm, 37% of the nation’s 500 largest school districts have experienced a change in leadership during the pandemic or expect to do so soon. In a normal year, that figure is closer to the 10% range, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
Domenech said the pandemic set up a no-win situation for superintendents across the country. When districts closed school buildings and shifted to online learning at the beginning of the pandemic, many working parents were upset because they needed their kids to be in school so they could go to work, he said. But when schools began to reopen, other parents got upset with superintendents because they didn’t think it was safe for their children to be at school in person, he said.
Once schools reopened in person, conflicts broke out over mask and vaccine requirements, Domenech said. Some parents insisted that it wasn’t safe to have students in school if everyone wasn’t required to be masked, while others took exception to any requirement that their children wear a mask. Some parents wanted the COVID vaccine added to the list of mandatory vaccinations that students must receive before they enroll, but others argued that it wasn’t school districts’ place to require the shot.
Superintendent vacancies could have lasting effects on school districts
As if those issues weren’t enough, then came conflicts over racial equity, Domenech said. Arguments about the alleged teaching of critical race theory boiled over in school board meetings nationwide, in some cases to the point that police had to be called, he said. In some districts, superintendents needed police protection to walk to their cars after school board meetings, he said. In other cases, superintendents dealt with threats to themselves and their families.
Those job stresses led many older superintendents to retire earlier than they might have otherwise, Domenech said. Many younger administrators who were not yet eligible to retire decided the situation was untenable and took jobs in the private sector, he said. In other cases, he said, school boards fired their superintendents because the politics didn’t align.
“All of those things combined resulted in a mass exodus of superintendents,” Domenech said.
Large school districts like Fort Worth and Dallas are complex operations, Domenech said, and they need experienced administrators to run them. But there aren’t many of those available, he said. And even if those larger districts are able to find a new school chief with that level of experience, some other, smaller district is left looking for a new superintendent when a larger district hires theirs away, he said.
The timing of the national exodus of school superintendents couldn’t be worse for public education, Domenech said. At a time when leadership is critical, the most experienced school leaders are fleeing the profession, he said.
Domenech said he worried that large school districts could see a leadership vacuum, with long-tenured administrators being replaced by people without the skills or experience to do the job well at a time when those positions are more difficult than they’ve ever been.
“That could have a lasting effect in the education system in the years to come,” he said.
Diversity also presents a challenge, Domenech said. The current pool of superintendents nationwide is overwhelmingly white, he said. Only about 6% of the superintendent positions in districts across the country are held by people of color, he said.
Domenech’s organization works with young educators who aspire to be superintendents to get them ready for the job, and one of their main areas of emphasis is promoting diversity, he said. There are many promising up-and-coming administrators in the country from diverse backgrounds, he said. But most of those people don’t yet have many years of experience serving as school administrators, he said. So districts like Fort Worth, which is about 65% Latino, may struggle to find an experienced leader who reflects their community, he said.
Executive search firm director sees uptick in requests
Debra Hill, managing director of BWP Associates, a Chicago-based search firm, said her firm has received far more requests for proposals than it would in a typical year. That large volume of searches shrinks what was already a small candidate pool dramatically, said Hill, whose firm wasn’t among those interviewed for Fort Worth’s search.
Most large urban districts like Fort Worth are looking for superintendent candidates who have already worked in other large urban districts, she said. That’s a small group of candidates, she said. And many potential candidates wouldn’t feel comfortable applying for jobs unless they could be assured of their applications wouldn’t become public until they received an offer, she said. If a list of applicants showed up in a news article, it could place all but the winning candidate in an uncomfortable position with their current school boards, she said.
Besides overseeing the day-to-day operations of the school district, a dedicated superintendent also participates in every community event they possibly can, Hill said. That leaves little time for a life outside of work, she said. Being a superintendent in a big-city school district is “a 29/9 job,” she said — “You can’t even say 24/7. You’re always on.”
Hill, who served as superintendent of a district in suburban Chicago for seven years, said those long hours, combined with new stress brought about by the pandemic and political controversies, have turned off many potential school administrators. Hill said her company tries to work with school boards to make sure they understand the importance of giving superintendents the support they need to do the job well.
Qualified candidates for top jobs are few, UNT professor says
Stephen Waddell, a visiting professor at the University of North Texas’ College of Education, said the number of superintendents leaving their posts in the DFW area is worrisome. It isn’t unusual for a few superintendents to retire or move on to other districts in any given year, he said, but the number of superintendent jobs that came open at once in North Texas is alarming.
Waddell said he expects many districts that might ordinarily have cast a broad net will solve the problem by promoting an assistant superintendent from within their own district. That approach has its advantages, he said. Those administrators tend to be qualified, he said, and they already know the districts. They can provide some continuity and a calming effect that could be helpful in tumultuous times, he said.
The superintendent positions in the Fort Worth and Dallas school districts, as well as the larger suburban districts, represent the culmination of a career in education, said Waddell, a former superintendent in the Lewisville school district. Anyone hired to serve as superintendent in those districts is likely older and has many years of experience, he said, and there isn’t much room for advancement beyond there.
But when those superintendents retire, Waddell said, there isn’t a large pool of qualified candidates to take their place. There has never been, he said, because the standards for those jobs are high. It takes many years of experience before an educator is ready to step into such a role, he said, but that experience isn’t enough by itself.
“It’s not just how long they worked in their profession to get ready for a job like that,” he said. “It’s the degree to which they’ve distinguished themselves, the quality of their work, that puts them in those jobs, ultimately. People like that don’t grow on trees.”