‘More to come.’ Ky. superintendents leaving the job amid COVID, political pressures

·4 min read

Scott Helton said the COVID-19 pandemic, including pressures of not having enough staff, hastened his recent retirement as Magoffin County Superintendent by about a year.

Tim Bobrowski, Owsley County Superintendent, said contributing factors for his upcoming retirement after 11 years are COVID, personnel problems and social media “frenzies” among parents and other adults upset about district issues.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t do the right thing in any perspective,” Bobrowski said.

The “toll of the pandemic” and politics have brought about more departures in the education workforce, including superintendents, Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, a national group, told the Herald-Leader.

“The masking issues, in-person versus remote learning, the (COVID) vaccination issue, critical race theory are the main issues,” he said. Add to that staff shortages and its “more than people are willing to endure,” said Domenech.

Rhonda Caldwell, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, said COVID and its accompanying issues, has put “an extra layer” on a position that is already incredibly difficult.

January saw Cornelius Faulkner announcing his resignation after eight years as Superintendent of Caverna Independent Schools.

“It’s just time for me to do something different,” he said. One factor in his departure, Faulkner said, was “dealing with some of the things with COVID -- an influx of people getting sick, quarantines every other day.”

Tammy McDonald said she resigned in September as superintendent of Danville Independent Schools mainly because of political pressures but that COVID was at least a small part of her decision.

“You are struggling with COVID, quarantine, staffing, and the increased mental health issues around COVID,” said McDonald, who moved to a position in Franklin County Schools as director of curriculum and instruction.

Caldwell said each superintendent departure has a story, but they share commonalities in terms of the challenges around the job.

Kentucky already had a teacher shortage in 2019 well before the pandemic started, she said.

Since the pandemic, teachers have been worried about their own personal safety as it relates to their health.

COVID has exacerbated not only the teacher shortages, but bus driver and cafeteria worker shortages, she said.

Kentucky superintendents cut short their conversations with Caldwell these days because they have to drive a school bus, help serve in the cafeteria or work as a custodian, she said.

Superintendents are being pulled into political arenas to mediate different values, she said.

“Our superintendents ... they’ve been harassed, have been threatened, over decisions to mask, decisions not to mask, decisions to close school, decisions to open school, decisions to go to remote learning, conversations around vaccinations,” said Caldwell.

Those are all things that the state and the nation and communities are divided on.

Superintendents are looked to to bring “clarity around the chaos,” to make decisions and to respond to constant change, she said.

The numbers ebb and flow, but some superintendents are retiring earlier than they had planned to, said Jim Flynn, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents.

Caldwell said 20 to 22 superintendent positions out of 171 were opened in the 2021-22 school year.

In 2020-2021, there were 18 superintendent vacancies.

In 2019-2020, there were 17 vacancies.

Caldwell knows that there are already 15 vacancies for the 2022-2023 school year.

“That’s a high number because there are more to come,” she said.

Helton, in Magoffin County, said he had been considering leaving because he wanted to help his brother who was having medical problems. However, Helton had planned on working another year. Then, he said, the pandemic started.

Finding qualified people became “more and more difficult,” said Helton.

“We adapted to the virtual, but it wasn’t a normal school year, the fear of putting people’s lives at risk.”

McDonald said in addition to COVID issues, superintendents can’t hire principals and control curriculum, a challenge she said would be improved with pending legislation in the General Assembly.

Domenech said no one is keeping records of superintendent departures on a national level.

But Flynn said more superintendents who have other options are taking them.

“The pandemic, the political climate, the social challenges ...made a high stress job even more so,” he said.

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