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School superintendents are leaving in droves. How do districts prep new candidates?

Stephanie Hughes Apr 26, 2023
Heard on:
The Public Schools Superintendents' Association of Maryland is putting on an academy for aspiring superintendents to develop administrators qualified to lead districts. Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace

School superintendents are leaving in droves. How do districts prep new candidates?

Stephanie Hughes Apr 26, 2023
Heard on:
The Public Schools Superintendents' Association of Maryland is putting on an academy for aspiring superintendents to develop administrators qualified to lead districts. Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace

It ain’t easy being in the top job. That goes for CEOs, and it goes for school districts too, where the boss is the superintendent, who oversees the budget and is the organization’s public face. Yet many have been leaving their posts: At least 30% of the country’s superintendents have quit in the last three years, estimates Michael Collins, president of the search firm Ray & Associates, which consults with school boards to find superintendents.

It’s been hard to fill those roles. “You have a shortage. Demand is exceeding supply. That’s a given,” he said.

In Maryland, turnover is indicative of what’s happening on a national scale, with about a third of the state’s 24 superintendent positions up for grabs last year. Now, the Public Schools Superintendents’ Association of Maryland, a membership organization, is putting on its first-ever aspiring superintendent academy, where about 16 educators from around the state gather to learn during the course of the school year. Members of this group have experience working as teachers, principals and even assistant superintendents. But the lead role has new challenges, like working with school board members who may be upset about curriculum choices or individual teachers.

A panel of current superintendents gave advice during a springtime session of the academy at an inn near the Chesapeake Bay. Dave Bromwell, who leads the district in Dorchester County, said he tries to be a buffer between his staff and the board.

“What I’ve tried to do is say, ‘Look, I’m your employee. So if you’re mad about something, and you think someone’s not doing their job, that’s what I’m for. I’ve got big shoulders. I can take it. Let me have it,’” Bromwell said.

It’s also important not to take things too personally, pointed out Superintendent Patty Saelens, who works in Queen Anne’s County. 

“Maybe if anything that you leave with today is: Don’t take things personally. Because you can have a lot of opportunities where you want to take things personally,” Saelens said. 

In answer to a question about how to avoid frivolous lawsuits, she had a warning: You won’t. 

“You’re just going to be sued all the time. You have litigation all the time. It happens,” Saelens said. “You cannot react to that. You have to understand that you are protected.”

The need for people who want to do this job is urgent.

“It would be lovely to not feel anxious when there’s nine openings, right? I know there’s a little cohort of superintendent wannabes out there,” said Mary Pat Fannon, the executive director of the Public Schools Superintendents’ Association of Maryland, which put the academy together.

The money for the training comes from Fannon’s association, the U.S. Department of Education and the school districts themselves.

And learning about money is key to the training. It’s one thing to know how to be a teacher or a principal. It’s another to know how to budget for a school system. Dorchester Superintendent Dave Bromwell said that can be a big learning curve.

“Are you providing staff with the tools they need to make our students successful? In doing that, what dollar signs attach to that?” Bromwell said.

There can’t be enough financial education for superintendents, said Marguerite Roza with the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown. She pointed out that many are wrangling budgets that are often in the tens of millions of dollars, and can be over $1 billion in the biggest districts.

“Managing these megabudgets in the private sector involves a whole career path,” Roza said. “You can imagine becoming a superintendent and actually not having had ownership over public resources in any significant amount before.”

A superintendent’s median salary is $156,469, according to a study by AASA, the national superintendent association. But candidates with these financial and people skills could make much more, say, running a big company. 

Michael Collins at Ray & Associates, the national search firm that consults with school boards to find superintendents, estimates at least half of states have some form of development process for aspiring superintendents. AASA, the national association, has different trainings too. The firm doesn’t track how many people who take part in these trainings go on to fill those roles.

But Molly Schwarzhoff, the search firm’s vice president, said when a district can’t find a superintendent, there’s a snowball effect.

“We’re seeing combined school districts, which then raises class sizes,” Schwarzhoff said. “Teachers get overwhelmed. We’re already seeing the burnout. It’s a huge impact on our kids and education system if we can’t find enough people to lead these districts.”

Which is why Maryland is training people like Monique Jackson, a deputy superintendent in Anne Arundel County Public Schools and part of the aspiring superintendent cohort. She has great-aunts (and other relatives, too) who were heavily involved in education, including one who ran an elementary school back when Maryland was a segregated state.

“I hope if they were here today, they would have that pride for the things that I’ve done,” Jackson said.

But she’s still weighing the time required and the scrutiny that could come to her and her family if she becomes a superintendent. Her kids are 11 and 13.

“They don’t know anything other than Mommy being at Central Office,” Jackson said. “So, that’s why this is not just a decision for me. It’s a family decision.”

One thing Jackson has liked about the academy is getting to learn from other educators from around the state — and an aim of the training is to build camaraderie. Mary Pat Fannon, of the Maryland superintendents’ association, pointed out that the job can be lonely. She wants these aspiring leaders to have colleagues they can turn to if they take the leap.

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