Teachers aren’t the only educational leaders in short supply in Arizona. School district superintendents are, too.
About 47 of Arizona’s 225 public school districts, or about 20 percent, will have a new leader for the school year starting in August and more than half of them have no previous superintendent experience.
“This is a higher number of superintendent vacancies than we have had in the past five years,” said Dr. Debra Duvall, executive director of the Arizona School Administrators Association, who noted it’s not uncommon to have 30 superintendent vacancies.
“Of the 45 plus superintendent openings this spring, seven are still unfilled, 28 are filled by persons with no district superintendent experience (first year in the position) and the remaining are filled by persons moving from the position in one district to another,” said Duvall, a former Mesa Public Schools superintendent.
Arizona’s situation is following a nationwide trend in the shrinking number of candidates for superintendent positions.
Nearly 50 percent of working superintendents – most between the ages of 56 and 60 – said they planned to retire by 2016, according to a 2011 survey by the American Association of School Administrators.
The shortage is not a first. Forty years ago, Arizona had a shortage of superintendents, but this time around it’s playing out differently, said Steve Highlen, an executive search consultant for the Arizona School Boards Association, which assisted 15 of its 225 member school boards with superintendent searches this year.
As it was previously, the current shortage is closely tied to current superintendents’ eligibility for retirement and schools’ abilities to attract and retain teachers, said Highlen. In the 1980s, however, the shortages were mostly in outlying areas.
“Now everybody’s feeling that same pressure,” Highlen said. “The shortages we’re seeing now are based on where it all starts – with getting people into the (teaching) profession. You’ve got to mentor people, and you’ve got to grow your own leaders within the system.”
While some superintendents retire, others move to another district, or new opportunities in business and in other fields, Highlen said.
“I suspect the reasons superintendents are leaving their positions are similar in many ways of those that have created the teacher shortage that Arizona is experiencing,” Duvall said. “Educational resources have been stagnant or declining for the past decade. Retirement salaries for all employees are based on the highest three or five years of employment; many have not had raises and do not foresee significant increases in the future.”
Nationally, superintendent salaries range from $36,000 to $315,000, according to the 2014 AASA Superintendents Salary and Benefits Study. The average superintendent’s salary is $122,000 and the median salary is $113,000.
The changing and increasing responsibilities of the position may also be a factor, Highlen said.
Increased state legislation may also play a role, Duvall said.
“In an attempt to be eligible for Race to the Top monies, the state legislature has adopted policies that many long-time educators see as detrimental to the teaching and learning environment – (such as an) emphasis on test scores vs. student overall success, stringent teacher evaluation processes, 3rd grade reading/retention, etc.,” Duvall said.
Yet, 86.5 percent of superintendents said if they had a choice to do it all again they would, according to the 2011 survey by the American Association of School Administrators.
Thirty-three of the superintendent vacancies for the 2015-16 school year – all of those currently unfilled – are outside Maricopa and Pima counties, Duvall said. In Maricopa and Pima counties, the majority of the vacancies were filled by a new or first-year superintendent, Duvall said.
“The superintendent shortage, like the teacher shortage, is statewide,” Duvall said. “We cannot say these shortages are only in the rural and low income areas. Educators in all areas of responsibility in Arizona are leaving the profession.”
Of the 36 superintendent searches ASBA was aware of this year, 29 percent of applicants were from out of state and three percent were from outside education, said Karen Loftus, director of leadership development for Arizona School Boards Association.
To attract candidates that meet their needs and desired qualifications, “some districts are finding that they need to be very competitive in what they’re offering whether that be financially or otherwise,” Loftus said.
Arizona allows school boards to seek out people who do not hold a superintendent certificate to help them find good leaders and bring in people with the knowledge and skills their districts need. Many times these candidates have public service, military or business backgrounds.
“In rural or remote areas, the candidate pool tends to be either people in a nearby community or region or people who are trying to move up in their careers,” Loftus said.
Superintendents in many rural areas may also be a school principal or a classroom teacher.
Many districts have a succession plan in place, Loftus said.
“Twenty-two percent of openings for next year will be filled by internal promotions,” Loftus said. “Nine (25 percent) of the superintendent positions filled for school year 2015-16 came from current (interim) superintendents, while 56 percent were assistant superintendents, principals or in other district leadership positions.”
One example of a grow your own candidate becoming a superintendent occurred in late May, when Western Arizona Vocational Education/Joint Technical Education District hired Amy West, the district’s career and technical education coordinator for the past eight years who was also instrumental in the creation of the JTED, to replace retiring superintendent Betsy Parker, according to an article in the Kingman Daily Miner.
“Persons with experience in an issue or in a community or knowledge or skills in a unique process may bring insights, avoid pitfalls, and engender support that may save time and resources,” Duvall said. “As district superintendents address issues of budget deficits, staff vacancy rates, enrollment fluctuations, and community perceptions, their familiarity with the purposes, people, and processes may create a more stable environment for implementing expected or needed changes.”
In addition, this coming school year, Arizona will have two new superintendents from out of state, Loftus said.
“Persons new to a community or to the state may bring new ideas, Duvall said.
Many teachers eventually become principals or take on responsibilities at the district offices, but they may need extra management training and time to develop the political facility to retain the support of key stakeholders, according to an article in takepart.
To develop those skills, the American Association of School Administrators launched a National Superintendent Certification Program in May 2013. The 18-month course trains superintendents with one- to five-years experience, matches them with mentors and has them attend seminars on finance business management, operations and education pedagogy as well as study real life cases of politics and communications.
Several Arizona school districts have developed programs to help grow their own leaders.
Pendergast Elementary School District, which serves students in Phoenix, Glendale and Avondale, recently launched such a program with the help of the Association of Latino Administrator and Superintendents. Their program offers training to teachers in their own and other districts in leadership, communication, finance, personnel and school law, protocols, blended learning, effective walk throughs and teacher observations and evaluations.
The more a superintendent and school governing board “can build that intrinsic culture that this is a great place to be, and I’m an important, valued person here,” the more likely educators stay, grow and put their leadership skills to use in the district to benefit students, Highlen said.