By Madelynn Coldiron
As the Harlan Independent school district’s superintendent, David Johnson also was finance director, instructional leader, district maintenance and construction supervisor, and transportation director while running the day-to-day operations of the small system.
In more recent years, he carried out those duties at the same time the district was implementing the state’s new academic standards, a new assessment system and new teacher and principal evaluation systems. All with reduced funding.
PHOTO: Graves County Schools Superintendent Pete Galloway shared a laugh with high school youth services center director Kaye Horn at a reception marking his retirement at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Graves County is one of a record number of Kentucky school districts this year that had to hire new leaders. Photo by Paul Schaumberg/Graves County Schools
Do you really have to ask why he decided to leave when another opportunity came along?
Johnson, who will become the leader of an education cooperative, is among what may be a record number of superintendents who switched jobs or retired in the 2012-13 school year. Of the 34 schools chiefs, 23 retired, eight resigned and three were terminated. The breakdown is deceptive, as some of those “retirees” will move to different education jobs after a mandatory hiatus.
The number is even more startling when the 2011-2012 turnover in superintendencies is considered: there were 31 during that school year, according to Kentucky Department of Education records. That means there were changes at the top in one-third of the state’s districts in just two years.
“A lot of it is frustration – so many things have happened so quick,” said James Lee Stevens, who just retired after 13 years as Hopkins County Schools superintendent.
“Sure, we’re making progress and we’re headed in the right direction,” Stevens said. “But I’ve been in the school business for 45 years and I really believe of those 45 years the most stressful have been the last three or four years. It’s just constantly one thing right after the other. We can’t get caught up.”
Blake Haselton, a former superintendent and the interim dean of the University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development, echoed those thoughts, saying the demands are tougher because of “the ongoing changes in expectations.”
“I think deadlines and timelines are tight as far as when people have to be ramped up to see results,” he said. “They don’t have enough lead time to get into the work and develop it.”
Stevens said district planning is now more difficult. No matter what local goals the board and superintendent set, he said, “the driving force is not what the community wants, it’s the state and federal government expectations.”
Johnson, the Harlan Independent superintendent, said he’s used to a lot of change, since he was a principal when Kentucky’s 1990 education reform came into being. But, he pointed out, there is one big difference between the two periods of change. Unlike the cash-flush days of KERA, “We’ve got fewer resources to help us” implement the current changes, he said.
Dr. Fred Carter, a former superintendent who is director of Teacher Services and Student Relations at Western Kentucky University and also runs the state’s mentoring and coaching program for new superintendents, said he hears the budget situation cited most often as the reason for the loss of experienced superintendents.
“Very few people are interested in throwing their hat in the ring for a position where all you do is chop, chop, chop and you end up firing people right and left, especially if you plan to stay in that district very long,” Carter said. “Because you don’t just make that person mad – the one you fire – you make their whole extended family mad through no fault of your own. Very few people want to put on the black hat these days.”
Wilson Sears, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents and a former superintendent himself, said the budget crunch prompts cuts and unpopular decisions and recommendations on services and positions by the superintendent. This “creates pitfalls,” and can “create a disharmony between superintendents and boards,” another factor that can lead to a leadership turnover, he said.
Add lifestyle demands to the factors of a new accountability system and reduced resources, Haselton said.
“I’d have to say that one of the things I’m hearing most is the lifestyle issue,” he said. “With some of them it’s the physical demands – not the physical activity but the physical demands and the toll of that type of position. I see that in the principalship, also.”
Linda Hatter said the time was right for her to retire this summer after 10 years as Casey County Schools superintendent.
“I think if you do this job and you go into it with the right intent, that your family and your personal life cannot help but suffer. There’s just no way around it. You feel a commitment to the job when you take it, so my family has taken a back seat for the last 10 years,” said Hatter, whose parents are 80 and who wants to enjoy time with her first grandchild.
The superintendent’s job is high-stress, said Pete Galloway, who retired after five years as Graves County Schools chief because “it’s time for me to move on.”
“There’s a lot of bullets coming at you at one time,” Galloway said. “It’s just difficult to keep a handle on everything. You have to surround yourself with good people.”
A few years ago, it might have been enough to be a managerial leader, but now, Hatter said, “If you can’t lead that instructional focus, you’re going to be in trouble.”
The tension occurs because “the management duties must still be done,” Sears said.
“The problem with superintendents and principals moving significantly in the direction of instructional leadership is that they are doing this with fewer resources, both financial and human resources, and so often times something gets left undone, or you’re working people to death, which also runs people off,” Sears said.
The new crop of superintendents includes young, knowledgeable, better trained and focused leaders, Sears said.
Carter agreed, saying these qualities offset the loss of institutional know-how that these retiring or departing superintendents take with them.
“Because things in education have changed so quickly, the people who are becoming superintendents now are the people who have embraced new ways of using data to make decisions and new ways to provide best instructional practices,” Carter said.
Haselton said he is encouraged by the improved communication among superintendents, comparing it with a professional learning community in which the chief executives share strategies that are working in their districts.
Because of the upheaval of the past three years or so, Carter believes “this is the last big year you’re going to see for superintendent vacancies for a little while.”
“I think we’ve weathered the storm and I think the economy is turning around, too,” he said. “We have brighter days ahead.”