Before Krista Parent got to the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators five years ago, she said no one was really tracking how many districts were hiring new superintendents.
As COSA’s deputy executive director, Parent runs the organization’s New Superintendent Academy, which begins in the summer and supports both first- and second-year superintendents.
“We’ve seen an incredible amount of turnover even over the last, not just the last couple of years, but the last five years,” Parent said.
Out of Oregon’s 197 school districts, 60 have superintendents in the first or second year of the job, Parent said. Twenty-five districts will have new superintendents this year, including two of the state’s largest — Salem-Keizer and Hillsboro. Four districts — Nyssa, Crook County, Jordan Valley and Oakridge — are still seeking a permanent or interim superintendent as of July 25. Both Crook County and Nyssa have brought in temporary folks to handle day to day operations.
School districts across the state have struggled to hire and retain superintendents in the last five years. The job has become a contentious one, as school leaders deal with the continuing impacts of the pandemic and face tensions from the school board.
Parent, herself a former National Superintendent of the Year, says Oregon and the country as a whole are in “crisis mode” for school district leadership. According to her data, there’s been constant turnover at the top, with 154 new superintendents across the state in the last five years. Some districts, including Corbett and Woodburn, have had three or more leaders in that time.
Parent said that there was always going to be a natural exodus of superintendents who were retiring or aging out of the system. Other fields are dealing with this, too.
But turnover at this level was unexpected.
“It’s been exacerbated by three years of a global pandemic and then this politicalization of the school boards,” she said.
On top of the internal board issues, the pipeline of school leaders is under strain too. The last several years have seen failed superintendent searches, one or two year interim leaders, and school districts struggling to maintain consistent leadership.
“The pool of talented superintendents isn’t large enough to fill the need,” Parent said.
What does a new superintendent have to do anyway?
Superintendents are the leaders of a school district. They lead the budget process and the overall direction of a school district. Depending on the size of the district, how much they’re involved in day to day operations can vary. When a superintendent stays, Parent said kids do well. But having constant change in the superintendent’s office often leads to instability in a school district.
“Leadership turnover is rough [on kids],” Parent said.
“The number one determinant of a student’s success is the quality of classroom instruction,” Parent said. Superintendents can help with that by making sure staff have access to training and can focus on serving students.
Another determinant? “Quality of leadership.”
“When you have that kind of turnover in leadership, teachers cannot be as effective,” she said.
“They can be [effective] for a little while, because what they do is they close their classroom door and they do their great work [...] but that gets old. It’s hard over time, and what tends to happen is you have turnover like that at the highest level, it just creates turnover all throughout the system — teachers go, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore.’”
Some districts have taken on expensive searches to find interim or permanent candidates.
COSA’s New Superintendent Academy is aimed at helping leaders get more comfortable in the job. Participants learn about communicating with school board members and how to work with the board, who essentially act as a superintendent’s boss. They’ll also learn about superintendent evaluations and preparing budgets.
“When you’re a first-year superintendent, you’ve likely never prepared a budget like that and been responsible for that entire budget,” Parent said.
New superintendents also get mentors they have 24/7 access to, including longtime school district leaders such as Umatilla’s Heidi Sipe, who has led the Eastern Oregon district since 2007, and Mike Scott, who recently retired after 14 years as Hillsboro’s district leader.
But Parent still worries about the impact of politics. In 2022, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill to protect superintendents from being fired for “no cause.”
Sharing testimony in support of the bill, Melissa Goff, who was dismissed from her role as superintendent of Greater Albany Public Schools in 2021, cited the need for stronger protections for school district leaders.
“I ask for your support of this bill so that our superintendents may do the work they are legally and ethically bound to do without the threat of an unwarranted dismissal,” she wrote.
But Parent says more needs to happen — like requiring training for school board members and superintendents about how to work together. With current tensions between elected school board members and superintendents high in some places, that training could lead to better relationships.
“We don’t have people wanting to aspire to be superintendents because it’s really a beacon for attack right now for a lot of people,” Parent said.
“[...]The problem’s just gotten worse.”
A pipeline issue
Maintaining strong district leadership isn’t just about making sure a leader communicates well with the school board. It also requires a pipeline to bring in new leaders who reflect a district’s diverse student populations.
There’s a lot of work to do on that front.
According to Parent’s data, only nine of the superintendents in 216 school districts or education service districts in Oregon are people of color. Just 49 are women.
Despite Oregon’s bleak statistics on superintendent diversity, Parent has hope that the pipeline for future school leaders might be changing. COSA helps school staffers get their administrator licenses. Parent said in 2012, when that program started, there were 12 candidates. Now, she says there are over 400. According to the Educator Advancement Council, “enrollment among racially and ethnically diverse groups” has increased faster than average over the last few years, representing 27% of total enrollment in 2021. But it may be years before those candidates get to superintendent positions.
“You don’t just jump to the superintendency, you’re an assistant principal and a principal and a curriculum director and so on. And so if we’re really gonna change the system, we have to start here and get that pipeline to a place of having a lot of diversity.”
There are also other efforts to help diversity school leadership ranks, including the Oregon Administrator Scholars Program, which provides scholarships to “address financial barriers that pose challenges for ethnically and linguistically diverse candidates pursuing their administrative license and are on the journey towards becoming a school administrator in Oregon.”
But building the pipeline and hiring superintendents is just one piece of the puzzle, when it comes to creating consistency in school districts in Oregon and nationally.
Reports on the experiences of female superintendents and superintendents of color in Oregon found that both groups face inequities and challenging work environments. Both reports found that supports, such as affinity groups, help new superintendents in the day-to-day difficulties of running a district. Statewide, there are affinity groups for administrators of color and LGBTQ+ school leaders. Oregon has also formed a network for female superintendents that meets twice a month.