CREDIT: FERMIN LEAL/EDSOURCE TODAY
LA Unified Superintendent Michelle King at an April 2016 rally at San Gabriel High to introduce a bill in the Legislature to help more students enroll in college prep courses.

At a time when California schools are introducing a range of landmark reforms, there is a continuing churn in the leadership of many of the state’s largest districts.

An EdSource survey of the state’s 30 largest districts indicates that in 17 out of 30 districts, the superintendents have been in office for three years or less. In nine of those districts, superintendents have served for less than a full year. Three are interim appointments during ongoing searches for permanent appointments.  

Only seven of the surveyed superintendents have been leading their districts for five years or more.   Only two – Michael Hanson in Fresno and Chris Steinhauser in Long Beach – have been in their posts for 10 or more years.

The survey results in these districts are not intended to be representative of California’s nearly 1000 school districts, but they highlight the extent of  leadership turnover in the state’s largest, mostly urban districts.  The combined enrollments of the 30 districts total about one-third of the state’s 6.2 million public school students.

Education experts worry that continuing turnover in school leadership could hamper implementation of a basket of  reforms, including the state’s new accountability system and the Common Core standards in math and English, along with their potential to improve student academic outcomes.

For interviews with four California superintendents appointed in 2016, go here.

“I don’t think nearly enough superintendents have the time to make both dramatic and lasting improvements in their districts,” said Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems in Los Angeles. “We have to ask ourselves what is keeping people from staying in their jobs longer. If you want big change, and big improvements for your students, and you want it to be sustainable, that simply takes time.”

Irvine Unified Superintendent Terry Walker, appointed to his post in 2011, said experience translates into a far more effective school leader.

“There is so much going on (in the district) that you can’t help but be a better decision maker,” said Walker, who after six years on the job is one of the more experienced superintendents in the state. “You are far less likely go ‘ready, fire, aim’ when you have a better sense of how all the parts fit together.”

While much attention has been paid to teacher turnover, there has been relatively little research about the impact of superintendent turnover on student academic outcomes. As Jason Grissom and Stephanie Andersen noted in their 2012 paper, “Why Superintendents Turn Over,”  “lamentably superintendent turnover lacks a well-developed research base.”

But many experts agree that it takes far longer for reforms to take root than the average length of time that many superintendents stay in their positions. Just how long is up for debate.

“Smart people say reforms need time to take effect, four to six years, or five to seven years,” Knight said. “The length of time that superintendents are in office doesn’t come close to the length of time it takes for these reforms to take root.”

Marshall Smith, the former dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and undersecretary of education, thinks that an even longer timespan is necessary. “Unless you are there for eight to nine years, you can’t expect to make big changes and to make sure the reforms stick,” Smith said.

Kelvin Lee, the former long-time superintendent of Dry Creek Elementary District just outside Sacramento, said the stressors for superintendents in small districts are different, although equally if not more intense.  That’s at least in part because superintendents in small districts typically have much less administrative support.

“In a small district district you are the CEO, the CFO, the substitute when someone doesn’t show up, the maintenance department,” he said. “You are public releations, you are human resources, you are it. It is a challenging situation.”

But he said, “once those challenges have been managed small districts can be magical places.”

Turnover is not always disruptive, and can even be positive. In some cases, an incoming superintendent may already have been in the district for many years in a subordinate position, ensuring continuity with the policies of the outgoing superintendent.

In other cases, new blood can invigorate a district, and lead to positive change.

But the change can frequently be a difficult one. In Los Angeles Unified, the district had a painful separation from John Deasy in 2014, who was succeeded by former superintendent Ramon Cortines, whom the school board brought back on an interim basis.

As is the case in several districts with new superintendents this year, school boards turned to an insider to help ensure a smooth transition. To replace Cortines, in January of this year the Los Angeles Unified board chose Michelle King, the ultimate insider who had gone through the district as a student, and had spent her entire professional career in the district as a teacher, principal and administrator.

San Francisco Unified also had a painful separation from Richard Carranza when he abruptly left the district in September after four years there to become superintendent in Houston. Carranza had also been a finalist for the L.A. Unified position. His departure is viewed as a significant loss to the district, and unlike in Deasy’s case, the school board was sorry to see him go. It has appointed longtime administrator Myong Leigh as interim superintendent.

In Santa Ana, the district is being run by its third superintendent in four years. But unlike the last two superintendents, who were selected from outside the district, the board chose Stefanie Phillips, who had been the deputy superintendent of business and operations for the previous three years. Similarly, San Jose Unified selected veteran administrator Nancy Albarrán, who most recently had been assistant superintendent of instruction, to succeed Vince Matthews, who left to become state administrator for Inglewood Unified.

Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon said one factor behind high turnover rates are school board members who select the superintendents and are up for re-election every four years. That means they are often looking for big changes within an unreasonably short time period.

One positive sign, Gordon said, is that this year there has been more stability in leadership in the 13 school districts in his county than he has seen in years. None of the districts has a new superintendent this year.

Matt Duffy, the new 43-year-old superintendent in West Contra Costa Unified, says he belongs to a younger generation of school leaders. He replaced Bruce Harter, who retired after 10 years as superintendent.

“I think it is a big deal to have any type of change after a long-term administration,” Duffy said. “I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t feel it might make a difference.”

“Younger staff and teachers connect with me,” Duffy added. “At the same time, there are a lot of veterans who are looking for a new way and are excited about me being here. People are craving more communication, more sharing of ideas, more vulnerability, more risk-taking, and that is right up my alley.”

Duffy said that he believes that the key to making reforms work is for individual schools to drive the reforms, rather than having it all come from the superintendent’s office.

“It is very difficult to craft a silver bullet strategy to serve every single student and every single school,” he said. “Every school should envision its theory of action, and envision how it is doing it. That is what is ultimately sustainable.”

At San Ramon Valley Unified, a district east of San Francisco with a largely affluent student body, Superintendent Rick Schmitt says the transition has been a smooth one since he came to the district in July. That’s in part because of the school board, which he said is looking for continuity rather than radical change. “The board didn’t hire me to blow it up and start over,” he said.

Many ascribe leadership turnover to the near impossibility of the job itself. “The magnitude of it can really wear you down,” said West Contra Costa’s Duffy. The key to longevity, he said, is having a positive relationship with a district school board. “You can go far longer when the board and the superintendent are aligned,” he said.

Much depends on the kind of district a superintendent is working in, and the depth of the challenges it faces. San Ramon Valley’s Schmitt, for example, said that being a high school principal was a tougher assignment than his current one as superintendent. “I am not out four or five nights a week, and I can put my feet up at the end of the day,” he said. “I have never felt overwhelmed by the work, and I look forward to it every day.”

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