By Talia Richman
First came the DeSoto announcement: D’Andre Weaver, superintendent since 2018, was stepping down to spend more time with his family and work for an education nonprofit.
A month later, it was the Richardson superintendent who was resigning. The same week the RISD trustees voted on Jeannie Stone’s separation agreement, the Mesquite and Hurst-Euless-Bedford top education officials also shared that they were retiring.
Some worry that this spate of superintendent departures is a sign of more turnover to come as school leaders continue to grapple with an ongoing pandemic, significant student challenges and political issues that push school decisions into a harsh spotlight.
“Certainly, I think we are headed for quite a number of school leaders stepping down because it’s just not sustainable,” said Kevin Brown, director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. “And it’s not what they signed up for.”
Still, it’s too early to know if Texas will see an exodus of superintendents that shadows the typical turnover in any given year.
Joe Smith, who tracks superintendent comings and goings, lists more than 50 vacancies on his website, Texas ISD. The median amount of time superintendents spend in their districts is about three years, according to an annual survey by the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators.
Smith said the number now is pretty typical. Many baby boomers are at retirement age. But some of the factors surrounding superintendent resignations are quite different than normal, he said.
“We have more issues right now that have everybody’s interests, that are newsworthy,” Smith said.
The job has always been political, experts say, but the current climate has ramped up the pressure. And on top of the polarizing education culture wars, superintendents are also contending with how to combat widespread learning loss and mental health struggles.
They’ve had to make the call on when to close campuses and whether or not to require masks, fraught decisions that inevitably angers one side of the community.
In Richardson, for example, Stone mandated face coverings for most of the semester. Her decision drew ire from the state’s Republican leadership, with Attorney General Ken Paxton filing a lawsuit against RISD for going against Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting such requirements.
School leaders also oversee any equity work that’s being done in districts to help ensure all students are set up for academic success. Stone was a vocal proponent of the need to address systemic racism within education, a stance that put her in the crosshairs of the national backlash against so-called “critical race theory.”
Conservative pundits have riled parents across the country by conflating the academic theory with a wide host of schools’ diversity and inclusion efforts being implemented to add longstanding disparities between how white children and children of color are treated at school.
Parents and community members have flooded school board meetings to demand changes on COVID-19 protocols and to accuse administrators of political meddling. Meanwhile, state leaders are probing districts about what library books they have, threatening investigations and law enforcement involvement if materials are deemed “pornographic.”
Superintendents have faced harassment and threats because of their stances on wedge issues. Others are at odds with their own district’s trustees, who are elected officials and responsible for hiring and firing superintendents.
“Usually as a superintendent, you can find a consensus on issues in your community,” Brown said. “And it’s just been almost impossible in some communities to get any kind of consensus. So you end up with people mad at you no matter what you do.”
But some educators may have actually stayed longer than expected, putting off retirement in an attempt to add stability during the pandemic, Brown noted. As COVID-19 continues to upend schools, though, it may have become too much and this year will end up being their last.
“People are pretty exhausted,” he said.
When Mesquite Superintendent David Vroonland announced his plans to retire at the end of the school year, he said it didn’t have anything to do with COVID. It was just time, he said, after almost four decades in education.
H-E-B Superintendent Steven Chapman, who spent three decades in the Tarrant County district, noted in his letter to the community that while challenges lie ahead, they lead to new opportunities, new ideas and renewed energy.
Weaver, in DeSoto, took over as a first-time superintendent in a district that was already grappling with poor academic performance and deep financial issues that eventually led to a state takeover. The school system was still working to right itself when the pandemic hit, adding more challenges.
Superintendent turnover is happening across the country. The leaders of the three largest districts — Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles — all stepped down amid the pandemic.
Pat Linares, a former interim superintendent in Fort Worth who now is a consultant who conducts leadership searches for Texas districts, said she remembers the pressure she felt when she was responsible for the education of tens of thousands of children.
“You add the pandemic and the possibility of outbreaks in your school and you take that responsibility to heart,” she said. “It’s very, very difficult, because you feel the weight of that responsibility.”
Turnover at the top levels can cause disruption as the changes trickle down to the classroom level.
Search firms must look for qualified new candidates to take over, considering their experience and how well they fit in with a district’s needs.
The most recent Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators survey found that, of the 98 districts that reported a new superintendent this year, 70% hired a person with no previous experience in the position.
That’s higher than in 2020-21, when 59% of districts hired a first-time superintendent.
Linares hopes creative, innovative thinkers step up to fill the vacancies despite the challenges.
“There are qualified, talented and inspirational leaders out there ready to take these jobs,” she said.
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.