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As difficult school year ends, school superintendents are opting out

Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, talks with high school students in April.
Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, talks with high school students in April. (Los Angeles Unified School District)
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Austin Beutner has been an investment banker, first deputy mayor of Los Angeles, and publisher and chief executive of the Los Angeles Times. But none of those jobs were tougher than the position he is soon leaving after the grueling covid-19 year: superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Beutner is one of a wave of school superintendents leaving their posts, far more than in a typical year, a result of the extraordinary challenges of keeping kids learning after schools closed in spring 2020 and serving as crisis managers for months on end while dealing with pandemic pressures on their own families.

The departures are from the top spots in large cities — including the largest three, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago — but also in many midsize and smaller districts in suburban and rural areas, according to AASA, the School Superintendents Association, which keeps track of its 9,000 members.

“We have worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week — truly 15 hours a day, truly seven days a week,” said Beutner, who declined an offer by the district’s school board to extend his three-year tenure. “It has been exhausting, and my guess is, from talking to other superintendents, this year has been like none other.”

While some superintendents are moving on to similar positions elsewhere, many are retiring early despite having years left on their contracts. And others have been forced out over differences with school boards.

The turnover this year has been unprecedented, superintendents say, with the usual job responsibilities and tensions exacerbated by crisis management and debates with communities and school boards over when and how to reopen schools during the pandemic. Conflicts over equity and education that addressed racial issues also boiled over, with superintendents often feeling the brunt of the disputes.

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Changes in district leadership can always be problematic, but never more so than now, as plans are being made to reopen schools fully in the fall at the same time that a new coronavirus variant known as delta is becoming more common in the United States and is, according to President Biden, “particularly dangerous” for young people.

Daniel Domenech, AASA’s executive director, who served as superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools from 1998 to 2004, said he can’t remember a time that was more fraught for those in the top leadership role in school districts. “In this environment, there’s no joy. It’s all like boom, boom, boom, constantly being hammered over one issue or another,” he said.

Beutner is not retiring when his contract expires on June 30, he said, but has decided that the all-consuming job of superintendent became intolerable during the pandemic. It became “open season” on superintendents, who were hit with a constant barrage of criticism from parents, teachers and others, he said.

“We are humans. We have families. We have partners, spouses, kids, our own life responsibilities,” he said. “For better or worse, schools become a magnet for all of the challenges which face society. . . . I sleep fine at night because I try to do what I think is right, but it is wearing because it is constant.”

In New Hampshire, more than 20 superintendents and assistant superintendents are retiring or taking new jobs, up from 12 the year before.

One of those is Meredith Nadeau, superintendent of SAU 13 in New Hampshire, who on May 10 submitted a resignation letter, effective June 30. She will now head a different school district, closer to her home, because, she said, the pandemic changed the way she thought about time.

The letter said, in part: “Before the pandemic, my daily commute was just part of my routine. The pandemic has caused me to think differently about the time I have left with my children at home, and an additional 1.5 hours per day will be significant over the next few years.”

In Cincinnati Public Schools, Ohio’s third-largest school district, Superintendent Laura Mitchell announced in May that she is resigning after 27 years in the district, having started as a teacher and worked her way up to the top job.

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After a difficult year navigating the district through the pandemic, she told her school board that the decision was tough but that it was time for her to move on.

“There is a season for all things, and it’s time for me to embrace a new calling,” she told the board in her resignation statement.

Tension in communities and between superintendents and school boards led to a number of high-profile disputes.

San Francisco Superintendent Vincent Matthews told his fractured school board in March that he was leaving after four years on the job “with a heavy heart,” but the next month agreed to stay an extra year if board members would act with civility and stop working on projects that were not connected to fully reopening schools.

Richard Carranza quit a few months ago as chancellor of New York City schools after three years on the job, amid tensions about reopening schools and after fights with Mayor Bill de Blasio over how to desegregate schools. Janice Jackson recently stepped down as chief executive of Chicago’s public school district, after fighting during the pandemic with the teachers union over reopening schools. She said it was time to move on, and that she was going to take some time off before starting a fellowship with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

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One of the most dramatic and confusing conflicts between a school board and a superintendent took place in Rockingham County Schools in North Carolina.

Rodney Shotwell, who had been pursuing an education equity agenda as superintendent, was fired before his contract was up this year by the school board — which refused to tell him or the community why he was fired.

Parents protested the decision, and the NAACP, the country’s oldest civil rights group, demanded he be reinstated. Shotwell sued the board, and a judge ruled that he should be reinstated. Shotwell did not respond to a query.

Board Chair Kimberly McMichael said in an email: “In December, our board voted 4-to-3 to terminate our superintendent, without stating a reason. I was one of the three. I am not able to explain their vote nor can I give any information concerning personnel matters. For the sake of everyone’s best interest, the focus of our board needs to be on our students and not on the adults. . . . [A]s board chair, I have no interest in continuing to discuss this issue.”

Asked if the board had told Shotwell why he was fired, McMichael responded: “No. . . . The members cited section 11b of his contract, which says, “not for cause.”

The atmosphere in many parts of the country has created so much tension for superintendents, Domenech said, that AASA members asked the organization this year for a program to help them process and handle the stress and anxiety created by the job.

They wanted the opportunity, Domenech said, “to come together as a group and be able to talk and not be afraid of sharing their issues and then hearing from their colleagues that are feeling the same way.”

For Curtis Jones Jr., superintendent of Georgia’s 25,000-student Bibb County School District, the pandemic presented challenges in both his professional and personal lives, with one bleeding into the other.

“I was always working,” said Jones, who was named the 2019 national Superintendent of the Year by the AASA. “I had to figure out how to keep my family together but also to keep the school district going in a positive direction as well.”

For Jones and other superintendents, facts on the ground changed constantly. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention kept changing, he said, and there was pressure from families to reopen schools before they did in February.

“There is no right or wrong, just what is best at this particular time for the conditions you are in,” he said, “and being able to recognize that what is true today is not necessarily true in two weeks.”

Virtual learning is the new fault line in education: It’s either on the way our or on the rise

When schools first closed, he said, he had to figure out how to keep the central office open and create a virtual learning plan. He also had to help the more than 30 principals in his district — all facing different pandemic experiences — create conditions for learning to continue. One principal had significant family issues with the coronavirus, and it affected him and his school, Jones said.

When schools reopened, it affected Jones’s personal life.

His mother is 91, he said, and “I didn’t want to take covid back to her.”

“But I knew that people wanted their kids in school, and I am superintendent of the district and I need to be in schools and interacting. That was a challenge for me,” he said.

Jones also has a son and niece who are teachers in other districts, which were handling the pandemic in different ways than he was, and he spent some time coaching them.

“Wearing the hat of a husband, a son, a superintendent, an uncle — those were all challenges I have had to handle,” he said.

Jones, who is staying in his superintendent position, said that one coping method he employed was meeting regularly during the pandemic with other superintendents in his state to discuss their situations.

“I would tell you that getting together and sharing was very helpful for me,” said Jones.