Between the pandemic and contentious school board meetings, some district superintendents are throwing in the towel

The head of the Texas Association of School Administrators says curbing the trend will require more civil communication between parents and administrators, after a year of some “unhinged” behavior.

By Kristen Cabrera & Caroline CovingtonJanuary 19, 2022 3:44 pm,

The pandemic has been an especially hard time for educators. Not only have virus surges forced schools and teachers to pivot at a moment’s notice to virtual or hybrid learning, pandemic precautions have become political lightning rods. Some school board meetings have even become contentious, and the stress and conflict has led some administrators to call it quits.

WFAA reports that over the last three months, eight superintendents in North Texas school districts alone have announced they are leaving their positions.

Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, spoke with  Texas Standard about how superintendents are teachers at heart, but some have felt national politics have “percolated” into their job so much that they’ve taken their focus away from the children.

Listen to the interview with Brown in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: Eight superintendents saying goodbye to that position, that sounds like a lot – and just in North Texas. Is that extraordinary, or how do you how do you rate it?

Kevin Brown: Yeah, we are seeing a much higher turnover than usual with superintendents. We have about 60 vacancies statewide right now, and I anticipate quite a number more coming up here in the next couple or three months.

I think on one day last week, three superintendents announced on the same day they’d be leaving. Did that set off any alarm bells in your office?

I think it does for, and it should for everybody in the state of Texas. I think that our educators are pretty exhausted right now and really struggling. And we’re talking about leaders that are extraordinary leaders, strong leaders, who devoted their careers to helping public education and serving their communities. And so anytime you have a turnover like that, it has an impact on the state, and it has certainly has an impact on those communities.

Is this just about COVID, or is this about other controversies that we’ve been hearing happening at school board meetings and that sort of thing?

I think it’s everything combined. We always have some turnover in any year already. COVID definitely added a layer to that. I think people are are just exhausted. Every single decision made around COVID has been met with just consternation. There’s division around whether there’s masks or not, whether, you know, how we’re going to social distance, who gets football tickets at the game when you’re having to social distance, things like that.

But I think also the the national politics that have percolated down to the local level have taken a toll. Superintendents started their careers as teachers. They go into it because they have a mission to serve children. They have a mission to serve their community. And a lot of the adult distractions that we’ve been seeing over the last couple of years have been a real concern because it takes away their attention from really doing what they believe is the right thing for children. And there’s always some controversy when you’re a superintendent; there’s some different kinds of things and people know that. But this has been at a different level, and it’s, in many cases, been at a toxic level that just makes it where they’re not able to fulfill their mission of serving children.

And so, you know, given the chance, then they in many cases say, Look, I just can’t keep doing this anymore.

We’ve seen a loss of leadership especially in North Texas, but is this happening in other parts of the state too?

It is. And you know, usually when you get into January, February, March is when you see turnover. And so it seems like a very high number this early on. And so I do think it’s cause for us to to really pay attention and to see what’s going on.

How do you combat a loss of leadership? You’re talking about people who have had decades of experience in many cases.

We have to think as citizens in our state about what we want our local communities and local school districts to be like. People want to go and work in a team. They want to work with a team and for a team, and they want support. They also want accountability and they want people to question and they want people to be engaged. But the engagement has to be done in a civil way, has to be done with the best of intent. And we just we’ve seen a lot of bad cases in the past year or so where people have just been a little unhinged. And I don’t think that reflects the majority of people. But I think sometimes when a small vocal group kind of takes control, it can be overwhelming to the school folks that are involved.

Am I oversimplifying by saying what’s happening is that the lack of civility is causing superintendents to feel like the job isn’t worth it for them anymore?

It is. I mean, we’ve had marches in front of superintendents’ homes, we’ve had threats of violence. And then, you know, board meetings that just become overwhelmed with very personal attacks, very high negativity. And what the school folks have been doing every day is working with John and with Susie and with teachers who are exhausted and they’re doing everything they can to help them. And rather than feeling like they’re supported in doing that, it feels like all of their energy is being pulled away from that. And that’s a cause for concern.

That’s not every community by any means. And it’s certainly not every community member, every parent. I think the vast majority of folks really do want their schools to be successful, and they’re trying to be supportive in every way possible.

This brings us back to what to do. Is there is there new leadership in the wings? Where where do you find a stream of new superintendents to fill vacancies in all these districts?

Part of what our organization does is try to create a pipeline of leaders, and we have an aspiring superintendent academy and we work quite extensively with young leaders that are coming up. I think, though, that what we all need to be concerned about is that more and more, what we’re hearing from young, promising leaders is, I just don’t know if I want to put myself and my family through that. I see what my superintendent deals with, I see what’s going on right now, you know, I’m not sure that’s the direction I want to take my life. And that worries me.

And I think those communities that have solid school boards that work collaboratively with one another have a huge leg up right now because superintendents want to work in a team of eight, seven school board members and a superintendent who can work collaboratively, think about what’s right for children, make decisions that are best for everybody and avoid some of these wedge issues that we’re seeing in our country today.

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