Virginia school superintendents leaving in droves
Nowadays, staying that long is rare. Leaving is not.
As of July, more than half of Virginia's 133 public school superintendent jobs will have turned over since the start of 2012, according to an analysis by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Longtime education officials say it's an unusually high turnover, anecdotally attributed to a variety of factors, including a wave of retiring baby boomers.
Recent fiscal pressures facing school leaders have not helped, and in several instances, retirements have created a domino effect of vacancies in other divisions.
Hatrick's job, for example, will be filled by Eric Williams, who will leave his superintendency in York County schools.
Hatrick pointed to a long-approaching baby-boom retirement wave and an associated ripple effect.
He added that "the superintendency, for whatever reason, is becoming a more difficult position to which fewer people aspire and it produces high turnover. Not just here in Virginia, but across the nation."
"It's a job that carries with it a lot of stress and a lot of responsibility," he said.
Roger D. Collins is retiring from Nelson County schools to work as an outreach coordinator with the Asia Institute at the University of Virginia. After a 31-year career in public education that he says has offered fulfillment in a caring and successful environment, he wants to continue giving to education at the university level.
As he transitions into a job with fewer hours, he sees increasing pressure on superintendents with unfunded mandates and the drive for higher academic performance.
"We are asked every year to have higher and higher pass rates, and our employees feel that pressure," said Collins, who in 2012 voluntarily cut his pay by roughly $15,000 to help with the budget, according to a news account.
School leaders are trying to grow academic scores while shrinking the digital divide and balancing budgets amid the state's prolonged recovery from recession.
This year, the state legislature has yet to pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, beginning July 1. In March, the Virginia Education Association highlighted per-pupil funding in the proposed House and Senate versions of the budget, which it says would be below 2009 levels.
A popular refrain from superintendents is that it's "the toughest job you'll ever love," a nod to a rewarding profession working with bright young minds but one that's also subject to great scrutiny and criticism.
Even seemingly innocuous decisions such as closing schools for inclement weather can trigger an avalanche of criticism from upset parents.
Steven R. Staples, who has kept a close watch on the trends in the state as executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, took over this month as Virginia's Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The turnover alone doesn't concern Staples, but he says it informs how he engages superintendents -- not everyone remembers events from four years ago.
"It's not a cause of panic," he said, adding that "the positive is you're getting an influx of new ideas, of new approaches of different perspectives, and that can certainly be energizing."
A school leader who has been on the job for many years is familiar to the community, and may have built a reservoir of trust and credibility. That can help when a superintendent makes a call that doesn't sit well with everyone.
It can take about 18 months for a new leader to really engage into the community, Staples said.
Eric L. Jones has served as superintendent in Powhatan County for nearly a year and previously worked as assistant superintendent for secondary instruction in Henrico County schools.
He's found a relatively smooth transition from a large suburban district to a smaller rural district, and has adjusted to operating with less staff, sometimes less resources, and a flatter administration.
"I've always been involved directly in schools and instruction and I was very pleased to find that I could still do that in this new role as superintendent," he said.
Another adjustment for a new superintendent is learning to navigate the political aspect of the job, and working with an elected school board and a county government.
"Both entities have been great to work with this year, but there's nothing that can fully prepare you for that," Jones said. "It's just something that you learn as you go along."
Jones finds a mentor in Stewart D. Roberson, the retired superintendent from Hanover County schools.
Staples' predecessor, Patricia I. Wright, a veteran Virginia educator, found the level of turnover more concerning.
"Education is an institution and there's institutional knowledge," she said in an interview before she left office, adding that it's helpful to know Virginia's accountability program, the influence of the federal government on the state's system, and how the state system impacts local school board policies.
"History teaches us," she said, adding "at least it helps inform future actions."
Further, just because a superintendent has been on the job for a while doesn't mean the official is not willing to change and embrace new ideas, she said.
"I have to believe that continuity is good for top leadership positions," she said.
She, like others, also stressed the importance of a good working relationship between a superintendent and a school board, which hires the superintendent.
More than one person interviewed for this story used marriage as an analogy to the school board-superintendent relationship -- one that works best when there's trust and a rapport while making hard decisions.
Hatrick, the retiring Loudoun superintendent, said that everything that becomes a stressor on a district eventually affects the school superintendent, and potentially also the school board -- the two entities that have to have a strong relationship.
"When there's stress all around you, it's not unusual for that stress to sort of play out in the people who have to have the closest relationship," he said.
Gina Patterson, executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association, which helps school boards in searching for a new leader, said on average the association might assist with six or seven searches a year.
In 2012 it helped with 12 searches, in 2013 it was nine and this year will be 14.
"This is the highest number of searches the VSBA has done in any given year in the 17 years I've been in this position," she said.
Hatrick says he hopes that tenures as long as his are not a thing of the past. There's great pressure for new superintendents to make decisions quickly to show change and satisfy the moment, he said.
"If you're not looking out five, 10 years, you may make changes that are good for the moment but not good for the long term," he said, adding that a guiding rule for his senior staff is to think about a decision's impact years from now.
"And in our case -- most of us expected to be here five years from now. So you make a decision you know you're going to have to live with."
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