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The Superintendent Shuffle

school superintendent
(Image credit: Pixabay)

You would have to be paying no attention to education news to miss the shuffle of school superintendents across the U.S. For instance, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Alberto Carhvahlo, is now the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified. Houston Independent School District was led by an interim superintendent for three years until the board unanimously voted in Millard House II into the position, pulling him from Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools in Tennessee. Fairfax County recently nabbed Michelle Reid, the 2021 AASA National Superintendent of the Year, yielding questions from NAACP about the qualifications of the candidate to lead a significantly larger district than her Northshore School District that serves 22,000 predominately white students. 

These superintendents moved far distances from their previous districts to take on new leadership challenges, yet 50% of superintendents in the U.S. are unsure about how long they plan to even remain a superintendent. 

A recent study of the nation’s 500 largest school districts reveals that 37% of experienced leadership turned over during the pandemic. In a time when equity and diversity is the focus, 70% of the newly appointed superintendents are men and 39 of these were replacing female superintendents. Of the 13,728 superintendents in the U.S., only 1,984 are women. That number is even more astonishing when considering women represent 72% of all K-12 educators

Here is some even more incredible research regarding the top education position: 

  • 28.5% of all school superintendents are women, while 71.5% are men 
  • The average age of an employed superintendent is 46 years old 
  • The most common ethnicity of superintendents is White (68.6%), followed by Hispanic or Latino (14.0%), and Black or African American (10.2%) 
  • The majority of superintendents are located in New York, N.Y., and San Bernardino, CA 
  • Superintendents are paid an average annual salary of $115,019 
  • Superintendents’ average starting salary is $79,000 
  • In 2021, women earned 93% of what men earned 
  • The top 10% of highest-paid superintendents earn as much as $167,000 
  • 15% of all superintendents identify as LGBTQ 

Leading during a crisis is one of the most challenging tasks a leader can take on and the crisis of health and welfare of children during a pandemic, mixed with the varying ways that states managed accountability during this time, makes it doubly stressful. 

Another major stressor for superintendents has been finding classroom educators, with at least 60% reporting teacher and substitute shortages. (See Tech & Learning’s April Playbook for Teachers). 

All this stress is amplified even further when there is a divided school board. The politics that have played out in school board chambers in recent years have been dramatic and represent a lapse in the belief of public education. As a result, school board elections in near months are polarizing in almost every state, with governors in South Carolina and Tennessee passing education funding legislation focused on weighted formulas for students, which may or may not be in a district’s favor. 

To help solve the numerous superintendent shifts we’re seeing in education, we must begin with the school boards and city councils that are responsible for overseeing the governance of school districts.  

The fundamental role of a school board is to select a highly qualified superintendent who can meet the needs of the community and its schools. Finding that person today may feel like finding a needle in the haystack, but great superintendents do exist and they are worth every penny. Superintendents should be the last person standing in a school district and that type of leader is the one school boards should seek. 

If a school board is unsure about how to go about finding a great superintendent, here are some places to start:

School board chairs should also reach out to their state school board association for assistance with searches. And, if you want to be inspired to hire a woman for the role, check out the Tech & Learning’s Honor Role podcast, hosted by two former assistant superintendents, Dr. Kecia Ray and Dr. Frances Gipson. 

Dr. Ray's career includes designing technology within the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and directing technology research through Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Science Outreach programs. As a district administrator for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, she led the award-winning design, implementation, and evaluation of instructional technology programs, including instructional design for online and blended learning environments, redesigning physical learning environments, redefining school libraries, and establishing the first virtual high school to award the diploma. She leads K20Connect and other passion projects supporting K20 education around the world.