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Recent superintendent resignations follow a growing trend

Mche Lee

In recent weeks, superintendents from some of southwest Ohio's most prominent school districts like Dayton, Middletown, and Lakota resigned or made plans to retire from their positions. While these superintendents are each leaving for different reasons, this latest batch of departures continues a trend that's been affecting major school districts all around the country.

According to data from the Superintendent Research Project, 49% of the 500 most populous school districts have undergone leadership changes since March 2020.

Issues caused by the pandemic were likely contributing factors to the rise in superintendent turnover. In the two years since the start of the pandemic, data shows a 46% increase in the number of superintendents transitions when compared to the two years before 2020.

Xavier University senior teaching professor David Tobergte has been preparing educators for roles as principals or superintendents for years, and was a superintendent himself. Tobergte tells WVXU he's noticed a rise in the number of superintendents resigning locally and finds it unusual for so many resignations to be happening in the middle of a semester.

While there isn't one specific reason for the increase, he says rising political tensions around schools typically result in waves of resignations nationwide and it's happened plenty of times before.

"It isn't the first time we've tried to re-examine books that are in the courses," Tobergte says. "It's not the first time we've had to deal with the issues of race. If you look at this history of public schools in my lifetime, we've had quite a few series of things that have occurred throughout our country."

How superintendents are like politicians

Conflict around discussions of race and LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom has turned up the political heat inside school districts and has forced today's superintendents to operate more like politicians than educators.

"[Superintendents] really have to have that touch of politician in them," Tobergate says. "Not a phony kind of thing, but understanding the process. Understanding how people can get behind an issue and use the school and the school board as a place to, in their minds, many times to make the place a better place. It's an interesting position."

The constant shuffling has left many school districts searching for leadership. It has also created new opportunities for both up-and-coming educators looking to take the next step and longtime school administrators who have been waiting for their chance at the top position.

"It brings people in the growth pattern in their career to be able to move forward," Tobergte says. "There are plenty of people out there in central office that I've worked with and they'd be great superintendents."

After Middletown City Schools' superintendent of five years, Marlon Styles Jr., announced his resignation, Assistant Superintendent Deborah Houser quickly filled the position. She has held four different roles at the district over the course of 15 years.

Houser says her experience working in Middletown for so long has prepared her to steer the ship and continue to move the district in the right direction following Styles' departure.

"Sometimes when you have a change in the superintendent's role, your initiatives that are already in place either pause or they stop," Houser said. "We really have a solid foundation with the new implementation programs and I just wanted to make sure that kept on rolling."

Houser is remaining focused on student achievement and creating an environment that teachers and students want to return to every day. She's excited to see educators in the district build connections again following the pandemic.

Women lose ground

While Styles' resignation created an opportunity for Houser, her story isn't common across the country. Even with the frequent resignations, many superintendent openings are not going to diverse candidates. Women in particular have lost some ground in that area.

The Superintendent Research Project shows women make up 30% percent of superintendents in the country's 500 largest districts as of September 2022. The data also shows that of the women who resign from their leadership positions, 66% of them are replaced by men.

Still, things could change. Tobergte says an increasing number of his education students are entering school districts and becoming superintendents quicker than ever.

Tobergte doesn't see the high turnover trend stopping anytime soon. While stability is typically better for school districts, shorter terms don't always have to be a bad thing.

"A new fresh set of eyes, a new set of ideas," he says. "Maybe after four, five, six or seven years, it's time for a school board to say, 'We thank you very much. We'd like to have somebody else come and help guide us.' I don't see that totally as a negative."

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.