An Impossible Position
A Kentucky district puts to the test its students’ exhibitions of learning and expected skills
BY CARL A. COHN/School Administrator, September 2021

During my 12-plus years as superintendent of two large urban school districts in Southern California, I dealt with rioting, gang warfare, the mobilization of the National Guard, earthquakes, floods and the rescue of students from a school by boat, the drowning of two 3rd graders in the flood control of the Los Angeles river, the car-jacking and murder of a beloved elementary school crossing guard by high school students, and uncontrolled wildfires that threatened to burn all the way to the coast.

After what school leaders have faced for the past year and a half during the COVID-19 pandemic though, I’m starting to look back on my time as superintendent as “the halcyon days of yore.”

Seared in my memory is the warning and admonition from a veteran school board member in Long Beach to “never close the schools because they are the safest places for our most vulnerable students.” I devoutly believed that and never once closed the schools in my decade as the district’s superintendent.

Like everyone else in March 2020 when schools closed in many parts of the country, I thought it would be temporary, perhaps a few weeks to successfully “bend the curve” and expected schools would reopen by the end of April. Little did we all know at the time that this was the beginning of a public health emergency that, in some cases, would leave schools as we know them closed for more than a year.

Extreme Pressures

Superintendents, whether we like it or not, are the local public face of this once-in-a-century catastrophe, and the public, in many instances, has been neither kind nor understanding when it comes to recognizing they have been dealt an impossible hand when it comes to doing what they do best — providing a safe haven for kids to learn and grow in the capable hands of heroic classroom teachers.

To put in some context the extreme pressures placed on superintendents, in February some 40 percent of all public school students in Colorado were attending a school district that was looking for a new superintendent because the superintendents in the four largest districts in the state had had enough of the blame heaped on by parents, the news media, the public and, sometimes, their own elected school boards, for closing school buildings and turning to remote teaching and learning.

The evidence clearly indicates this phenomenon is not confined to larger urban districts. Smaller districts in suburban and rural areas have experienced the same kind of turnover in their district leadership. The main difference is that the large urbans tend to receive public attention from print and electronic media. Everyone presumably knows that New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza, Chicago CEO Janice Jackson and Los Angeles superintendent Austin Beutner announced their departures in 2020-21, leaving the three largest school systems in America without permanent leadership going forward.

But much less recognized is how this story is playing out in the school systems of Paradise Valley, Ariz., Clayton County, Ky., Dublin City, Ohio, and hundreds of other communities where superintendents have left their positions because of the undue pressures. All acted on the belief they were doing what was necessary to keep school-age children and school staffs safe by following the explicit public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, governors and county health officials. And, here in California and other states, you often had county health directors in adjacent locations directing school districts to stay closed, while a health director in a county two minutes away argued that schools should be open — the main difference being the red/blue political divide that permeates our national politics. When I was Long Beach superintendent in the 1990s, I remember receiving praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Attorney General Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton for my efforts to keep kids safe from gang culture by implementing a required school uniform policy. I was hailed in interviews on the “Today Show” and “Good Morning, America” as a champion of delivering on job one for a superintendent — keeping children safe!

Eli Bassman and Jami Bassman protest disciplinary action against their father and husband, Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Tom Ahart, at a public hearing where he testified about his decision to keep the schools in remote learning despite a statewide directive by Iowa’s governor to reopen all public schools. PHOTOS © BRIAN POWERS/USA TODAY NETWORK

A couple of decades later, a hard-working and conscientious superintendent might ask, “How did our politics and social media so dramatically turn a fundamental strength into something now viewed as a liability? Why are my family and I the subject of death threats on social media, and why are rallies outside my home being organized by strangers who are convinced that I need to be fired?”

One of the most egregious examples unfolded in Des Moines, Iowa, where superintendent Tom Ahart appeared in June to be in danger of losing his superintendent license for having the audacity to follow the instructions of his elected school board in keeping his school district operating online for the first two weeks of the school year so that students and staff would remain safe from the spreading coronavirus. Admittedly, his action was construed by some as direct defiance of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ directive that all schools open on time and remain in-person for the fall term.

According to reporting by the Des Moines Register, an administrative law judge for the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners issued a preliminary ruling concluding the superintendent did violate his duty to comply with all laws associated with his professional obligations. The judge, however, has not opined on whether or if Ahart, Des Moines’ superintendent since 2013, should be punished.

Fraying Board Relations

Two of the best examples of the increasingly contentious relations between school boards and superintendents during the pandemic have been on full display in two Northern California school districts — one in the city of Watsonville, the other in San Francisco.

In late January, the board of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Santa Cruz County fired superintendent Michelle Rodriguez on a 4-3 vote on a Wednesday night. Then, at a grueling six-hour meeting the following Sunday, the board unanimously reinstated her on a 7-0 vote following board member death threats and community uproar. The preponderance of public testimony spoke of the positive impact on student outcomes that had taken place during Rodriguez’s tenure. Long-time observers of school board politics would consider four days a new record for that kind of public reversal on school system leadership.

The challenges in the San Francisco district involved a school board-initiated renaming of more than 40 schools, a lawsuit filed by city officials for failing to reopen schools for in-person instruction, a change of policy for admittance to academically elite Lowell High School and the demotion of the school board’s vice president for alleged anti-Asian tweets.

Superintendent Vince Matthews, a graduate of the school system who once worked for me as an outstanding area superintendent in San Diego 15 years ago, announced in March he too had seen enough and would retire at the end of June. In reaction, the school board took the extraordinary step of promising publicly to change its ways and to focus exclusively on the safe reopening of schools as the board’s primary mission and focus. They amended the superintendent’s contract language consistent with their stated promise and agreed to “govern in a dignified and professional manner, treating everyone with civility and respect.” Matthews agreed to stay on.

The San Francisco case, better than most, lays bare the undercurrent of racial reckoning that started with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis over a year ago but probably has had a delayed impact in K-12 education because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that schools, especially high schools, have not been open for most of this past year in many parts of the country. It would be a mistake for superintendents, school board members and others to believe that the election defeat of Donald Trump and the murder conviction of police officer Derek Chauvin will postpone that inevitable racial reckoning once schools fully reopen this fall.

Adding to the complexity of addressing racial reckoning issues and anti-racism in public schools is a new well-organized and coordinated campaign from conservative media and political advocates to conflate any discussion or embrace of equity with support for critical race theory, a scholarly discipline dating back several decades. The personal attacks lodged against hard-working superintendents doing their best to support better achievement for all students will only serve to hasten the departure of ever more experienced superintendents from the job.

Experience Exits

In Clark County, Ky., near Lexington, Paul Christy, an eight-year veteran in the superintendency, lost his job on a 3-2 vote of the school board with the majority telling the local media that the school system had been one of the last in the area to return to in-person instruction and that the superintendent’s communication had not always been consistent throughout the pandemic. The board minority that voted to retain Christy argued that inconsistency in communication, in fact, is a central challenge in a public health crisis for any superintendent when the CDC, governors, state departments of education and local public health officials have issued what the board members called “inconsistent and conflicting” guidance to schools. One parent at the school board meeting said of Christy: “He is a good man, and I believe he has done everything he could under the circumstances to keep our kids safe.”

An excellent educator who has managed to maintain the support of his school board for now is superintendent John Carruth of the Vail School District near Tucson, Ariz. In late April, a crowd of about 200 individuals opposed to the use of facial masks in schools stormed a Vail school board meeting and pretended to elect new board members after the duly elected board members cancelled the meeting because of the disruption. The imposters took seats on the dais, argued that Roberts Rules of Order gave legitimacy to the new voice-vote elections and proceeded to rescind the school district’s mask mandate in a unanimous vote.

Carruth, in a well-reasoned and thoughtful op-ed column for the Arizona Daily Star the following week, tried to lower the community temperature by pointing out that the mask mandate was a temporary measure that was not dreamed up by the school district but was a public health requirement from the CDC and the Pima County Health Department, applicable to the workplaces of Raytheon and IBM, the community’s two largest employers. Carruth concluded: “Our students deserve more from us, and they deserve an end to the school year with the least amount of disruption.”

Given this kind of climate in communities around the country and the psychological and physical toll it’s taking on school leaders, no one should wonder why state school administrator associations and executive search firms point to what feels like a record number of superintendent departures in June 2020 and even higher numbers this past summer.

Replacing those experienced superintendents with talented newcomers becomes a critical and important question for state and federal policymakers, education researchers and superintendent preparation program leaders. After years of lamenting that the superintendency remains a visible leadership position dominated overwhelmingly by white males even as the makeup of public school students becomes ever more diverse, might we view this moment as a crisis opportunity to bring in a new cadre of superintendents who better reflect the diversity of the communities that they serve?

Further, it’s important to remember these newcomers will need the ongoing, thoughtful support of their professional associations and networks to succeed.

Michelle Rodriguez, superintendent of Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Santa Cruz County, Calif., on the day she was reinstated to her post, four days after being dismissed in a 4-3 school board vote in January. Public testimony revealed overwhelming support of her leadership. PHOTO BY KEVIN PAINCHAUD/LOOKOUT SANTA CRUZ
Upgrading Superintendent Prep

In my professional career that has spanned more than half a century, I’ve spent 35 years in three school systems and a state educational agency and 15 years in higher education at a half dozen universities around the country. In each higher education position, I prepared superintendents and other education leaders in programs typically housed within the safe confines of traditional schools of education. One exception: Claremont Graduate University, located outside Los Angeles, at one point required Ph.D. candidates to take at least two courses at another graduate school on campus. Most fulfilled the requirement by completing courses at Claremont’s first-rate Drucker School of Management.

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Harvard University, which had a well-regarded Urban Superintendent’s Program exclusively housed in its education school, decided a multidisciplinary approach would build on the strengths of faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School. Successfully preparing 21st-century leaders to encounter new challenges demands broader preparation beyond the often-narrow parameters of education schools.

In 2015, as a consultant in a new Stanford University Executive Program for Education Leaders, a joint effort of the graduate schools of education and business, I remember the overwhelmingly positive reaction from sitting superintendents from around the state as they were exposed to the stars of the business school faculty who were experts at crisis management, communication and persuasion, strategic planning, building power and influence, as well as engaging communities. Unfortunately, the ground-breaking program lasted only one year.

In his new book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, Scottish historian Niall Ferguson argues that the next global disaster is inevitable and probably coming sooner than we think. He points out that our country’s track record of preparation is abysmal given that SARS and MERS outbreaks in 2002 and 2012, respectively, were not treated as opportunities to dramatically ramp up preparation in critical sectors, including public schools.

As we consider what we have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic about the new skills needed for future superintendent success, who will lead that debate on the future state of superintendent preparation? Will it be traditional universities and their education schools, or will it be nontraditional, venture philanthropy enterprises like the Broad Superintendents Academy and Chiefs for Change or the academies and professional learning cohorts provided by AASA and their state affiliates? Finally, might we need a trusted national commission of the best and the brightest to take on this critical task in a timely way?

The fate of America’s public schools and their leaders awaits the outcome.

CARL COHN, a retired superintendent, is professor emeritus of Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. Twitter: @carlcohn