ELKO, Nev. — After years leading school districts on the East Coast, Michele Robinson wanted to come home.
In May of 2020, the Las Vegas native accepted an offer to become superintendent of the Elko County School District, which serves roughly 10,000 students in northeastern Nevada. Her tenure began just a few months into the pandemic when coronavirus cases were surging across the nation and education officials were grappling with whether and how to reopen schools.
As hard as those first months were, the gradual return to in-person learning in fall 2020 was harder. Parents and community members — angry about mask requirements and bristling at potential Covid vaccine mandates — pressured Elko County School Board members and district officials to flout state directives and exert local control over those decisions. At some point last school year, board meetings devolved into people shouting at district leaders to watch their backs. Security at meetings was increased.
“I loved the community, and I really loved the work that I did,” Robinson said. “It’s just you get to a point where you have to weigh whether or not the threats to your safety are worth the continuation.”
Robinson concluded they weren’t and resigned in June 2021.
Nationally, about 25 percent of superintendents have made a similar decision in the past year, compared to a typical turnover rate of 14 to 16 percent, according to the American Association of School Administrators.
Superintendents’ reasons for leaving vary. As many as 1,500 to 2,000 superintendents have stepped away after delaying their retirement during the first year of the pandemic, estimated Michael Collins, president of Ray and Associates, a national search firm that consults with school boards to find new leaders.
“Superintendents stood by their districts when they thought this would be a couple of months,” said Molly Schwarzhoff, executive vice president and a lead recruiter for Ray and Associates. “It’s a whole different ball game now. Once we saw what we were up against … a lot of people just said, ‘I don’t want to play anymore.’ ”
Altogether, the ongoing impact of Covid-19, coupled with political turmoil at the local level, has likely added as many as 3,000 vacancies beyond normal attrition during the last and current school years in the approximately 13,500 public school districts in the U.S., Collins said.
25 percent — superintendent turnover last year, up from about 15 percent in a typical year
Depending on how long pandemic conditions persist, he added, “the first five years of this decade could produce a staggering rate of turnover, rearranging the average turnover rate for the entire decade.”
The job of a superintendent — managing multimillion-dollar budgets, supervising school principals and central staff, fielding matters of public concern and negotiating school board priorities — has never been easy. And now, as thousands of school boards across the country compete to hire new district leaders, it’s not entirely clear who actually wants and will be qualified to do these jobs.
The collective scramble for new leadership comes at a tense time for school boards. Although they typically hire and technically supervise superintendents, in recent months school boards have been at the center of public fights over mask mandates, Covid-19 vaccines and teaching about race. The recent surge of vitriol at public meetings, meanwhile, has made it difficult to recruit top talent when a new superintendent is needed.
Social distancing has prompted many school boards to host their public meetings online, if they weren’t already. And that’s made it easier for potential applicants for superintendencies to observe what their life would be like in those districts.
“Candidates are doing more homework than ever,” Schwarzhoff said. “You may be setting up interviews in two to three months,” she advises school boards, “but you’re being interviewed right now. Candidates are seeing the good, the bad and the ugly right now.”
In Alaska, the state’s school administrators association estimated that superintendent turnover is nearing 30 percent. Lon Garrison, who heads the Association of Alaska School Boards, has urged members to try to act more respectfully to each other and to administrators. He said that he recently worked with a school district that had cycled through six different superintendents in just four years.
“In today’s world, anybody can see how you behave,” Garrison said. “And with boards where there’s been a lot of controversy or board members who create some havoc, they have a harder time recruiting those top candidates.”
Like other school systems nationwide, Elko County School District’s hunt for a new superintendent may be complicated by its neighbors doing the same thing. Two other school districts in northern Nevada — Washoe County and Carson City, including Reno and the state capital — have also launched searches preceding their superintendents’ impending retirements.
Collectively, the Washoe County, Carson City and Elko County school districts serve roughly 84,300 students, or 19 percent of children attending Nevada’s public school districts.
But the superintendent shortage was almost much worse: The school board overseeing the roughly 320,000-student Clark County School District in the Las Vegas area terminated Superintendent Jesus Jara in October before undoing that action several weeks later. The tumultuous fall highlighted the split nature of the seven-member school board and the ongoing tensions between the superintendent and a few trustees over governance policies, management styles and issues plaguing the district, such as low morale and severe staffing shortages.
“Every district has its challenges, and I don’t think you do anybody any good by pretending like you don’t have a challenge.”Angie Taylor, Washoe County School Board president
Despite a fraught relationship with his bosses and a host of pandemic-era challenges, Jara decided to continue leading the nation’s fifth-largest school district. In a statement announcing an agreement with the school board, Jara framed his decision as rooted in not wanting to desert the community’s most vulnerable children.
“There are too many children in this community that have been left behind,” he wrote. “I won’t walk away from them.”
His decision to stay came as a relief to Clark County trustee Lola Brooks, who worried about the board’s prospects of finding a new leader given what she described as its “reputation for dysfunction and for micromanagement.” More superintendent vacancies across the country, she said, mean more options for those seeking top-level positions.
“There are communities that are way more supportive of education in general,” she said. “They actually pay more, and they have fewer students, and they have less drama.”
That sentiment isn’t shared by Brooks’ Clark County colleague Linda Cavazos, one of three trustees who sought to terminate Jara. She said districts should not be so reliant on hiring national search firms that produce the same stable of candidates. Instead, Cavazos suggested that districts look for new leaders who have demonstrated success with similar student demographics, even if they hail from smaller cities and don’t fit the “cookie-cutter image” of a veteran superintendent.
Despite Clark County being out of the competition, Washoe County School Board president Angie Taylor wants to make sure the governing body is on its “best behavior” while they look for a new superintendent.
“Every district has its challenges, and I don’t think you do anybody any good by pretending like you don’t have a challenge,” Taylor said. “Because then you’re bringing somebody in under false circumstances.”
Outgoing Washoe County superintendent Kristen McNeill, who has worked for the district since 1996, said her husband retired last year and it was time to join him. After a stint as interim superintendent beginning in 2019, she was appointed the district’s leader by the Washoe County School Board in April of 2020. Her reign as superintendent unfolded during the pandemic, but she said the difficulty of working in schools at this time was not unique to her. Bus drivers, teachers, central office staff and other employees have also been pulling double duty to plug holes caused by vacancies.
She said she’s just “one of many people that continue to feel exhausted and burned out.”
The Washoe County School District’s deputy superintendent and chief operations officer are also retiring at the end of the school year.
Leadership changes like these can create a ripple effect throughout districts. New superintendents bring new visions, new curricula, new administrative practices and sometimes even new staff. A change can lead to a yo-yo effect for those at the school level who have grown accustomed to one way of doing things, only to be thrust in a different direction.
Calen Evans, a STEM coordinator in the Washoe County School District and president of an advocacy group called Empower Nevada Teachers, is bracing himself for that change yet again. He has worked under four superintendents since he started with the district as a substitute teacher in 2012. The new hire will be his fifth.
Evans said he is remaining optimistic, hoping the shift in leadership forces the district to rethink how it educates students. But pros come with cons, he said.
“Let’s relearn the wheel again. Let’s reinvest the resources we don’t have into new programs,” Evans said, explaining the downsides.
Before any of that happens though, district leaders have to find people willing to take on the role, and they anticipate that search will be a tough one.
The Carson City School District, which is about 30 miles south of Reno, hired the Nevada Association of School Boards (NASB) to help with its search for its new leader. Longtime Carson City superintendent Richard Stokes is retiring at the end of the school year.
Debb Oliver, executive director of NASB, said superintendent positions that may have drawn 20 applicants pre-pandemic are only seeing five or six right now. The smaller pools limit districts’ choices and perhaps the quality of candidates, she said.
At the same time, superintendent salaries will likely rise. Carson City School Board president Joe Cacioppo said trustees increased the salary range for the next superintendent, knowing that rising housing prices and the other superintendent openings could make it difficult to attract the right person. The new salary range is $170,000 to $210,000, depending on experience, he said. The outgoing superintendent’s annual base salary was $178,000.
“If we find out that the best person for the position is somebody internally, that’s a positive for us,” Cacioppo said. “If we find out the best person is somebody who comes in from outside the district, we’re excited about that, too.”
In Valdez, Alaska — a remote district that enrolls about 700 students at four schools — Kathy Todd isn’t sure how to approach her city’s next superintendent search.
She’s served on the school board in Valdez for 15 years and helped select the last superintendent, who started in July. But after a few months on the job — and following protests at his home about mask mandates — he quit. The school board pulled a former employee out of retirement to fill the post, but it’s not a permanent solution.
“Frankly, being a superintendent in this kind of politicized pandemic is extremely difficult,” Todd said. “We have lots of competition from other Alaska school districts trying to hire, and the pool [of candidates] is shallow.”
In Alaska — where superintendents’ salaries are lower than those in a majority of other states — it’s also a struggle to find leaders willing to work in isolated settings. There’s long been a teacher shortage, making schools dependent on hiring from out of state and sometimes lowering the bar for required experience. School boards in remote areas use the same techniques to find superintendents. Now, even those imperfect solutions may not work as well as they once did.
“We have just voted to appoint you as our interim superintendent. So, congratulations and condolences all at the same time.”Teresa Dastrup, Elko School Board president
“You’re not seeing that comparable education and experience and training,” said Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators. “We’re so reliant on the lower 48 [states] to produce those candidates … and the pipeline has just dried up.”
As for superintendents on their way out, “they’re next-level exhausted,” Parady said.
Karen Gaborik stepped away from the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District in June, deciding to take at least a year to travel and spend time with her mother in the warmer Arizona climate. Gaborik declined to cite specific quarrels with the school board, but said “lightning rod” debates over Covid and masking overtook conversations about instruction. Gaborik, who graduated from high school and started her teaching career in Fairbanks, is sad that her seven years as superintendent — a bit longer than the average national tenure rate — have come to an end.
“I reached the age that I could retire, and would have stayed if the dynamic with the school board stayed productive,” Gaborik said. “I could see things change before my eyes. It was time to step out.”
Robinson, the former Elko County superintendent, also left town, and doesn’t feel safe disclosing her current location.
After she left last summer, more Elko County education leaders stepped down as well. Five trustees quit in the wake of a board attempt to make mask-wearing optional for students and teachers. The superintendent search stalled. Several candidates withdrew, and the two remaining trustees delayed making any decision about whom to hire.
But a reconstituted Elko County School Board recently took a step toward temporary stability. In mid-December, trustees selected C. J. Anderson, a district employee, as the district’s third interim superintendent. The board hasn’t ruled out conducting another search for an official superintendent, but it may ask Anderson to assume the role.
Elko School Board president Teresa Dastrup said she was grateful that two candidates had even applied for the interim position after such a rough summer and fall.
“We have just voted to appoint you as our interim superintendent,” Dastrup told Anderson at the Dec. 14 board meeting. “So, congratulations and condolences all at the same time.”
This story about the superintendent search was produced by The Nevada Independent, a nonprofit newsroom based in Las Vegas, and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.