“Huge blow” of superintendent turnover is nothing more than hot air

David DorseyEducation

What do you think is the average tenure of a superintendent in a large urban school district in the U.S.? According to a national urban school district association, it is 3.2 years. How about in smaller schools? Across the country it’s about five years. Now let’s look at Kansas. According to KSDE, the overall average tenure of a Kansas superintendent is five years.

chicken-little-sky-is-falling-1aGiven that there are 286 school districts in Kansas and those tenure realities, would a turnover of 61 superintendents in one year be so far out of line, constituting a “huge blow” to Kansas education? The Wichita Eagle and other media outlets seem to think so. In a recent article reminiscent of Chicken Little, the Eagle quotes a state official that it’s “the highest turnover in the history of the state.” That’s probably true. But the Eagle fails to address the larger questions such as: Is it out of line with current trends across the nation? Is it a natural consequence of an aging workforce (especially those at the top of an organization)?

The Eagle asserts that it’s tied to the “stress leaders feel over finances and the political climate, where battles over education funding have dominated Statehouse debate for the past several years.” Put succinctly, superintendents are flying out the door because the Legislature has taken a cleaver to education funding.

Darin Headrick is the Eagles’ Exhibit A. He just resigned as superintendent of USD 422 (Greensburg), citing smaller budgets causing “the quality of things you deliver to students” to decrease. Conspicuously absent from the article is the fact that Headrick was Greensburg’s superintendent for 13 years. Headrick was quoted as saying he wants to go “somewhere else…to make positive change and not do damage control.” If your kids were in a school with a superintendent who saw his job as “damage control,” wouldn’t you want that person to move on? Thirteen years is a long time in a stressful job like superintendent and I could completely understand if he were feeling it was time for a change.

Departing superintendents from several large, urban districts were also highlighted in the article; their separation described as a “huge blow.”

  • Julie Ford of Topeka Public Schools retired after five years (not four as incorrectly reported by the Eagle) at the 501 helm. Ford, who had no previous superintendent experience replaced John Morton, who resigned after five days in the summer of 2011.
  • Tom Trigg just left Blue Valley after being superintendent for 11 years for more money in Texas.
  • Marlin Berry resigned from Olathe after six years as their superintendent for a similar position in Arkansas.
  • Rick Doll of Lawrence exited after seven years to become executive director of K-State’s Kansas Educational Leadership Institute. Upon leaving Doll said: “But I love teaching; I miss teaching. Even when I was at Louisburg, I still taught. I would really like to get back to teaching.” That’s not exactly an indictment of the system.
  • Theresa Davidson resigned her Emporia post after 15 years in the district, the last six as superintendent.

What do these five individuals have in common? Two things: they are all over 60 which makes them KPERS eligible and all were superintendents longer than the national average for urban superintendents.

Just for the record, in the state’s other large urban districts:

  • Wichita superintendent John Allison is beginning his eighth year.
  • Kansas City’s Cynthia Lane is beginning her seventh year.
  • Shawnee Mission’s Jim Hinson is beginning his fourth year.

All have tenure above the national average. So where’s the crisis?

Mike Waters, who for 14 years was superintendent in the Cimarron district in western Kansas, was also featured in the article. Waters left for a similar position in Crete, Nebraska. According to KSDE statistics, Waters’ 2015-16 contract was worth $109,070 including fringe benefits. In Crete, Waters will be making a base salary of $140,000 plus fringe benefits. Good for him and his family. Isn’t this the sort of striving we want to instill in Kansas students?

But let’s say for a moment that a turnover of 61 superintendents should raise our eyebrows. Did they all leave the state? Were they all replaced by a bunch of neophytes who will cause the districts to go through a crippling learning curve? The numbers don’t support that inference. Statistics from the United School Administrators of Kansas paint a much different landscape.

Of those who left:

  • 6 retired
  • 2 were interim superintendents not hired permanently
  • 21 took other superintendent jobs in Kansas

Of those taking their places:

  • 14 were promoted from within
  • 29 had most recently been a superintendent in another district

Does that sound like a crisis to you?

What about the impact on student achievement? According to Corey Gibson, the Valley Center superintendent who has studied superintendent longevity: “It takes seven to nine years for a superintendent to have a long-term effect on student achievement.” Taking Mr. Gibson at his word, given a typical tenure of five years, it would appear Kansas superintendents actually have little impact on student achievement, regardless of whatever other value they add to the “business” side of running a school district. How does the current situation change things? It certainly doesn’t support deputy education commissioner Dale Dennis’s claim that current turnover “has taken a toll on districts and the state as a whole.”

kerr 1We can all agree that good leadership is essential to the success of any organization. But length of tenure isn’t lue 2necessarily a barometer of accomplishment. Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors won the NBA title in his first year at the helm, as did Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers this year. Conversely, Mike Scioscia is in his 17th year as manager of the last place Los Angeles Angels, having last won a playoff series seven years ago and 14 years removed from a World Series title.

Apr 12, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia (14) reacts before the game against the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

 

The bottom line is that there is no crisis in superintendent turnover as the media reports. There simply isn’t any “there” there. Kansas urban superintendents have longer tenure than the nation as a whole. Turnover for smaller districts is right at the national average. Many superintendents left to take a similar job here in the state. More than half the districts’ new superintendents were either superintendents somewhere else or have been promoted from within. And given the average overall tenure in the state is five years, a one-year 20% turnover is no big deal.

The real crisis continues to be student outcomes and achievement gaps. Overall, Kansas students consistently perform about average in a nation that doesn’t do so well. And low-income students continue to lag at unacceptable levels behind their non-low-income peers year after year. The public would be better served if the Eagle and other media outlets focused on the students and not the institution.

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