Some 200 Missouri, Kansas superintendents may quit amid COVID turmoil, hostile parents

·3 min read
2021 Star file photo

Superintendent Marc Snow was already thinking about retiring after 30 years as an educator. But his last two years of navigating COVID-19 shutdowns and parental hostility over mask wearing and curriculum, left him with no doubt that it was time to go.

“I’m not going to lie,” said Snow, who heads the Grain Valley School District. “The hostile environment made it a lot easier to write my letter.”

The high turnover, likely welcomed by a segment of angry parents and residents, in no way helps improve schools. And It hurts students.

More than 160 superintendents across Missouri and Kansas could leave this year, according to local superintendent groups. Replacing them won’t be easy because fewer qualified candidates are willing to step into the inhospitable arena that public education has become.

Kansas may see as many as 70 of its 285 superintendents, or roughly 1 in 4, leave their districts this year. Usually that number is around 45, said Gene A. Buie, executive director of the United School Administrators of Kansas.

In Missouri, more than 40 superintendents have already either applied for retirement or inquired about leaving their district at the end of the school year. And superintendents told us they expect that number will rise to 100 by year’s end. That’s up from the roughly 83 who left in 2021 and 86 the year before that, when COVID-19 shut down schools and made delivering online education a big challenge.

At least five superintendents on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metropolitan area — including Park Hill, Raytown and Kearney — are leaving this year.

“Those are big numbers,” said David Luther, spokesman for the Missouri Association of School Administrators. And while for some superintendents it’s just time to retire, “I don’t think we can ignore that the political climate and the escalating aggression towards public school leaders has played a role,” Luther said.

Firms that recruit superintendents will have a hard time finding enough qualified candidates to fill the vacancies. “The truth is the pool is very shallow,” said Bob Watkins, an ex-officio member of the Kansas/Missouri Superintendents Leadership Forum.

“We are losing a great deal of experience,” Buie said. “A few years ago, a district may have had 10 or more applicants for a superintendent’s position. Today, maybe you get three.”

Potential candidates are likely hesitant to manage a district under fire from parents yelling about everything from teaching about race to pandemic mitigation. Making the job even less attractive are politicians such as Missouri’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is suing every district in the state that is requiring students and staff to wear masks.

“The political rhetoric has pushed some superintendents to the point they are saying, ‘I don’t need this any more,” Buie said.

This isn’t a problem specific to Missouri and Kansas. Across the country, thousands of superintendents are walking away. “The number is alarming,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the national School Superintendents Association.

“We have superintendents who are being threatened, whose families are being threatened, and it’s so bad that some of them have had to get security just to walk to their car,” Domenech said.

The exodus of superintendents is contributing to a larger education workforce shortage among cafeteria workers, bus drivers and teachers. It is going to take a kinder community working together to fix this, because nearly 50 million children attending the nation’s public schools depend on it.

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