SUCCESSION PLANNING IN THE ERA OF THE SUPERINTENDENT EXODUS
The American Association of School Administrators recently found that about 25 percent of superintendents across the country have left their jobs since 2021, about 10 percent more than usual. In some places, the rate is as much as 50 percent. The study was reported in a 2022 Education Next article, published this past summer. It was one of many publications that spoke to the leadership crisis in education.
A January, 2022 Hechinger Report article titled, Who wants to lead America’s school districts? Anyone? Anyone? reported that superintendents are leaving their posts in droves. Furthermore, the "farm system" is not adequately supplying the next generation of superintendents. In many cases, assistant superintendents don't want the job.
In a RAND survey in 2021, 51 percent of superintendents said they would likely stay, while 26 percent said they’d likely leave. Another 24 percent were undecided. Most of my superintendent colleagues are quick to point out that the job is more complex given a multitude of cultural conflicts. Of all American institutions, education has always been among the most binding. But the combination of growing distrust in institutions coupled with the proliferation of social media that perpetuates cultural clustering and cancelling has superintendents rethinking their tenure and assistant superintendents rethinking their career ambitions.
Superintendent tenure is no longer just a big-city goliath school district issue. It's effecting school districts of all shapes and sizes. While the most effected are districts with more than 100,000 students, the highest percentages of low-income students, or with the highest percentages of students of color, it has crossed every boundary.
My 23-school unified school district is one of 23 school districts in the county where it resides. As of the 2022-23 school year, 17 of the 23 school districts have changed superintendents at least once since I became the superintendent in the year before the pandemic shuttered schools in California three-quarters of the way through the 2019-2020 school year.
In a report from a survey published by the National Superintendents Roundtable, in September 2021, titled, Superintendents Struggle During Pandemic: Panic Attacks, Strokes & Threats of Violence Meet Prayer, Exercise, Meditation, and Booze, superintendents cited concerns about the state of the profession and the intense physical and psychological pressure they've endured.
Public misbehavior on social media and during public meetings left a lasting impression on superintendents who found themselves in the middle of a tug-of-war pitting opposing groups against each other in a test of political and public will.
Superintendents who successfully navigated the challenges of the last few years used a de-centered lens, to borrow a term from photography, to keep students and learning visibly centered while blurring and softening other parts of the public debates staged in board rooms and on social media.
The argument can be made that long superintendent tenure is as equally troublesome as its opposite. The era of 20-year reigns is rare today. Somewhere in between is probably best. Practicing the term-limit principle prevents a superintendent from amassing too much power and supports succession planning to prioritize stability as an organizational goal.
Stability in all organizations is important. But especially in education since the industry is fundamentally unstable due to a variety of factors including the annual impact of economic conditions on school funding. Change superintendents often, and watch the foundation that stability may have built become weakened and distressed.
Districts with a crumbling foundation struggle to retain high level education leaders at the principal level and above. And other highly qualified candidates are reluctant to join unstable organizations. Stability breeds stability. Instability breeds instability. If school districts were smart, they would focus on finding and supporting the right superintendent, and then shift the focus on a succession plan for the next transition. A skilled deputy with the luxury of preparing for the position strengthens a district's long term outlook.
In Effective Superintendent-School Board Practices : Strategies for Developing and Maintaining Good Relationships with Your Board, published in 2006, the authors, all retired superintendents, called on superintendents to exit in a sensitive and positive manner and to make sure a successful transition occurs with the new superintendent, even when leaving is not the departing superintendent’s decision. How superintendents and school boards part company speaks to the relationship the superintendent and board have with each other. In the interest of students, transitioning in a positive way is a governance team's responsibility. Anything otherwise is irresponsible and morally objectionable.
Intentional leadership succession planning is a common practice in corporate America., It's far less common in education. In Planning for the Future: Leadership Development and Succession Planning in Education (2018), Fusarelli,, Fusarelli,, Riddick, Kruse, and Woulfin defined succession planning as the purposeful and systematic effort of projecting leadership requirements, identifying a pool of high potential individuals with the capacity for development to senior leadership, and developing these candidates through planned work experiences, training, education, and personal growth. Here's a conceptual framework:
It's likely that the next couple of years will see more change at the top since many new superintendents were thrust into their new positions before they were ready due to the high demand.
Districts that are superintendent-friendly with good reputations will likely attract the deepest pool of qualified candidates, while districts with poorer reputations will choose between lesser, or at the least, less experienced leaders. It's a strategic necessity to grow your own leaders.
When I originally published a version of this essay, readers asked me what is a superintendent-friendly district. My answer, to borrow from Whitaker and Donlan in their 2019 book, The School Board Member's Guidebook, defines superintendent-friendly districts in the context of board and superintendent roles: What boards of education are really about is providing the governance so that schools can be run in the first place. Governance and leadership are different. In my own words, a superintendent-friendly district is one in which the governance team values role agreement and eschews role conflict.
While the superintendent position has always been political, COVID took school district politics to a place it has never been before. As a school district leader, it's difficult to lead your district to a place you can't visualize. No one knew where the pandemic was taking us. It was as unpredictable as it was unprecedented. One superintendent described it like leading your ship into a storm or a regiment into battle. You had a feeling there would be, figuratively speaking, casualties. In most cases that ended up being board members or superintendents themselves. Who's next?