The impact of the pandemic on California schools is becoming evident through alarming statistics, as a rising number of superintendents are choosing to depart California. Those who persevered through the challenges of pandemic-related school closures and the tumultuous subsequent years have reached a point where they feel they can no longer continue in their roles.
“This year, before the 2023 school year, I think people finally broke,” said Rachel S. White, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who runs a research lab that collects data about school superintendents.
With just about 18% leaving certain school districts all across the state, some are being pushed out by newly elected school board majorities while others have reached retirement age or moving on to less stressful jobs.
In-person schooling failed to calm the intensity of school board meetings, which became centered on issues like the inclusion of critical race theory and discussions around systemic racism, as well as LGBTQ+ topics. School superintendents frequently became the target of community dissatisfaction, to the extent that certain school districts allocated funds for security measures to protect their superintendents, according to Edsource.
“I can’t ever remember hearing of a superintendent that had gotten a death threat before,” said Gregory Franklin, the former superintendent of Tustin Unified School District in Orange County. “Now, I know personally four or five. It’s just kind of shocking.”
The growing issue is not exclusive to California, as nearly half of the nation’s 500 largest school districts have witnessed leadership changes since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, according to the Superintendent Research Project (PDF).
Specifically in L.A. County, Culver City Unified School District is searching for new superintendents, and the high demand is driving up salaries and benefits packages, with total compensation surpassing $500,000 in some cases. “What we are seeing is that the challenges are greater than ever before, and the political environment is creating great instability in the institution, which is resulting in shorter tenure for superintendents,” said Dennis Smith, managing search partner for Leadership Associates—a recruitment agency that conducts superintendent searches in California.
“Newer, younger superintendents are becoming more common,” Smith said. To assist new superintendents, the Association of California School Administrators is providing a seminar series, academy, and workshop, according to Edsource.
“No amount of academic training or a certificate can prepare someone for this trial by fire,” James Finkelstein, Professor at George Mason University, said. “The bottom line is that there is no substitute for experience. Every school district would like an experienced superintendent who has demonstrated success in their previous position. But finding those individuals is increasingly difficult, especially given the dramatic turnover since COVID.”