At least two school superintendents in Oregon have been fired by their school boards recently for work they thought was essential to their jobs. Running a school district has become even more complicated with COVID safety protocols, remote school and the political divisions in this country. Craig Hawkins, Executive Director of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, tells us what he’s been hearing from superintendents around the state.

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The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. It has been a challenging year and a half to be a K-12 administrator. First there was the almost overnight switch to distance learning. Then came hybrid schooling, a return to in person classes, mask mandates. Now we all have to contend with the more contagious Delta variant. Meanwhile, the backlash against government mandates has only gotten louder and more politically powerful, with school boards joining the call to push back against the governor’s orders. And then there is a separate backlash against diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Principals and superintendents in Oregon and around the country have found themselves in the crosshairs of all of this. Two superintendents have lost their jobs as a result. Craig Hawkins is the Executive Director of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators. He joins us now to talk about the challenges that school leaders are facing. Craig Hawkins, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Craig Hawkins: Thanks Dave. Good to be here.

Dave Miller: It’s good to have you on. I just gave my version of what basically, what I imagined school administrators have been dealing with over the last year and a half. What are you actually hearing?

Craig Hawkins: Well, your summary actually did a pretty good job of describing, sort of in broad strokes, what it’s been like. I think that in some ways describing what it’s like to be a superintendent today, for example, the people we represent, the superintendents and principals, first of all would say, it’s been a challenging year for everyone, right? Not just for them. But, like everyone else, they’re human beings, They have the same worries. They have family and friends who have been impacted by Covid and, and so they’ve had a lot of the same experiences as everyone else. And in addition to that, of course, they have responsibilities for leading school districts or school buildings, for educating students, for ensuring the health and safety and wellbeing of students and staff and by extension their families. And that responsibility has been really heavy, especially at a time of a pandemic. And so, and then as you mentioned, they’re leading with all those responsibilities in a really politically charged environment with politically divided communities and in some cases anyway, politically divided school boards and the last 18 months or so have, with all the pressures, all the demands, have definitely taken a toll. And so maybe sometimes we try to find a little bit of humor in things because that helps us all. So as I talk with superintendents these days, one of the things I always do is check in on their health. And the question I often ask is, “Are you sleeping?” And honestly what happens is they just laugh when I ask that question because they’re not sleeping. And the joke that runs along with that is, honestly, superintendents today have begun to age, a lot like we see presidents age during their time in office. The last 18 months have definitely taken a toll.

Dave Miller: Right, they go in with darkish hair and they come out with gray hair is the common idea. And actually sometimes you see pictures and it’s actually been true. What kinds of questions have you been getting from superintendents about difficult situations? Often political ones that they have found themselves in?

Craig Hawkins: Yeah. And as you might imagine, we’ve had a lot of those conversations, really throughout the pandemic and especially over the last couple of months, with the mask mandate and more lately, the vaccination mandate. Superintendents are in challenging positions. We have school boards in some communities who have at least talked about pushing back in some ways on the mask mandate. We have obviously had some really challenging school board meetings where community members have shown up to protest the mandate. But as we work with superintendents and principals, what we have to do is get back to what we’re trying to accomplish here. What we’re trying to accomplish here is having every student in person in school every day and in order to achieve that, the mask mandate, wearing masks is really important. And so what we tell our members is one: they really have only one choice and that’s to follow the law.

Dave Miller: Well, but on that, but at the same time, we have some school boards in Oregon and around the country saying, don’t do that. Don’t be one more sheep here, following this terrible idea from an overreaching governor. That’s the kind of language we’ve seen. What would the repercussions be if a school leader chose to disregard the governor’s order?

Craig Hawkins: Well, the potential repercussions are pretty significant. First of all, for superintendents or administrators or really for teachers, for that matter. If they disregarded the order, they run the risk of losing their license to have the jobs that they have. So when a school board says, defy the governor or lose your job, a superintendent is looking at it as if I defy the governor, I lose my ability to have this job, not only here, but any place else. Beyond that, I think the vast majority, maybe all, but certainly the vast majority of our members would say again, we’re trying to have kids in school every day and in order to have them in person every day, we need to follow these proven health and safety protocols, like masks, that make that more possible.

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Dave Miller: So what do you make of the two recent firings of Oregon superintendents under different circumstances, but both related to what we’re talking about here? One, in Albany, in the Willamette Valley and the other in Adrian, in Malheur County?

Craig Hawkins: Well, I’ll just be really straight. For me, for our organization, those firings are really unconscionable, that when it comes right down to it, firing a superintendent or parting ways with the superintendent because they’re choosing to follow the law, a law designed to keep kids and staff and families safe and in school, or following the law related to every student belongs and the important equity work the districts are engaged in. In either case, we think it’s wrong and Dave, if you don’t mind, I’ll just share that we’re working on some legislation for February that would do a couple of things. One is to require training for school boards and superintendents related to board governance, because we definitely think we need to do work there and also related to equity. And we’re also working on legislation that would provide some protections to the superintendents, something we never thought we’d have to ask for, but protections for not being able to fire a superintendent for following the law.

Dave Miller: I can imagine that the very school board members who have done this would be very up in arms to hear that, about the possibility of lawmakers in Salem constraining their ability to exert local control, given that that is literally the exact issue that has animated them to such a great extent to begin with.

Craig Hawkins: Yeah. I think that that’s a really fair point and at the same time, it’s hard to imagine that we’re going to be in a world together where following the law is seen as a fireable offense. That just, it just kind of flies in the face of reason.

Dave Miller: I want to remind folks, if you’re just tuning in, I’m talking right now with Craig Hawkins, the Executive Director of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators. Getting fired is obviously a very dramatic way for a superintendent to no longer have their job, but others could just retire or resign. How common has that been in Oregon over the last year and a half?

Craig Hawkins: Unfortunately, all too common. So this year we have a record number of new superintendents in Oregon, significantly higher than we’ve ever had before. In fact, 43 districts in Oregon have new superintendents. That’s more than 20%, and 40 of them, 40 of those superintendents are brand new. So never having had been superintendents before. So we’ve got young, at least in their superintendency, superintendents who are trying to lead at the most challenging time we’ve ever experienced.

Dave Miller: How do you explain such turnover?

Craig Hawkins: I think it’s a combination of things. The pandemic obviously contributed to it and the political divide in our communities. Superintendents became superintendents because initially they cared about kids and education and they wanted to be educators. Almost no superintendent you talk to will say ‘my career goal was to be a superintendent’. They all say, or almost all say, it’s to be a teacher. I wanted to work with kids. And so that’s who they are. They’re education leaders, they’re not political leaders. And the political challenges of the job have become, well to say demanding is to say it lightly.

Dave Miller: We’ve talked largely so far about backlash against Covid related mandates and laws, but nationwide, another big issue that superintendents and principals have had to deal with is questions about curriculum and fears that students are being taught Critical Race Theory, and this is a nationwide issue. To what extent have you seen that in Oregon?

Craig Hawkins: It’s definitely been present in some school board meetings, in some community meetings for sure. I think that, a couple of things here. One is that the inequity in our school systems has really been exacerbated during the pandemic. And so we really think that it’s more important than ever to really emphasize our equity commitments and plans that we’ve made in recent years. And it feels to us like we should be able to agree as Oregonians that every student deserves safety, respect and belonging every day at school. So for example, some of the pushback here in Oregon that’s been around every student belongs, which is, I think, the active bans of confederate flags and swastikas and nooses from school campuses. Some of that pushback really flies in the face of what I think Oregonians really stand for, what we all ought to be able to agree on, because that law helps to ensure safe, respectful, welcoming school settings for all students. And again, I think that’s something that we all want. So, we would say that teaching students of all races and identities about our history, and doing it honestly, discussing important issues to an inclusive and culturally responsive curriculum. That’s crucial. It’s crucial as they prepare to live and work not only in the communities that we have, but in that vast interconnected world we all live in. And we’ve worked hard to advance legislation around making sure that we have as diverse, well supported, well prepared and culturally responsive educated workforces as possible. It’s really important.

Dave Miller: Craig Hawkins, thanks very much.

Craig Hawkins: Thank you, Dave.

Dave Miller: Craig Hawkins is the Executive Director of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators.

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