Support Superintendents: Build a Culture of Trust and Stop Turnover

Apr 4, 2024 2:48:33 PM


At some point in their careers, every superintendent has walked into a school board meeting that felt more like a battlefield. Opinions collided, often contentiously, and administrators felt unprepared for the hostility they were about to endure.

As political winds shifted across the U.S., superintendents found themselves swept up in controversies curated by adversaries who saw goals of inclusivity as grounds for indoctrination. Instead of discussions centered on improving student learning, debates exploded over partisan issues, such as policies prohibiting pride flags in the classroom. Worst of all, they were prepared to force a change in leadership and change their agendas.

Those superintendents with supportive boards had the backing to carry on, but in many cases, superintendents either resigned from the stress or became casualties of politics. Over the past four years, 33 percent of districts experienced superintendent turnover, and five percent had two or more changes in the role.

Stakeholders have discovered that an unwarranted leadership change has reversed their schools' progress since the pandemic. And that backward momentum rolled over and over again because no one in the community was willing to fight to keep successful superintendents in their roles.

Thankfully, now that they’ve witnessed the impact of never-ending conflict on their districts,  dedicated board members, students, and parents are standing up for great leaders and uniting in various ways to support them.

The Cost to Our Kids

When political upheaval and leadership turnover flare up, districts experience financial fallout, and students experience hardship.

Discord can create unplanned expenditures that chip away at the resources students desperately need at a time when schools are already struggling with budget cuts. On average, districts spend between $40,000 to $100,000 searching for a new superintendent. Those figures may be on top of severance buyout packages for ousted administrators.

According to Dr. Shawn Joseph of Howard University, there’s been an increased exodus of superintendents due to the politicization of education and the bigotry that often accompanies it. This lack of diversity and representation is detrimental to our children’s education.

Black and brown students in school districts with same-race teachers and leaders experience higher test scores, graduation rates, attendance, and behavioral outcomes. White students who have Black leaders form critical relationships that help disrupt biases and racism.

Turning the Ship Around

As devastating as the past four years have been for superintendents, hope is on the horizon. To create meaningful, long-lasting change, it will require a collective effort from communities, educators, and board members to consider the following three key steps:

1. Revisit the Power of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

In many districts, superintendents, especially Black leaders, who center their work on equity have not fared well historically amidst unsubstantiated fears of student indoctrination, misrepresentations of critical race theory, and identity-based divisiveness. It doesn’t look any more promising when elected board members, even in minority communities, tend to be white.

Board and community members must listen to and respect superintendents as DEI experts and understand how the framework creates opportunities for every student. DEI recognizes and challenges gifted students, affirms individual and diverse experiences that can impact a student's learning, and ensures a struggling student has accommodations.

Superintendents aren’t dividing our students but uniting them through inclusivity and preparing them for our globally competitive and diverse world.

2. Bring Bipartisanship Back to School Boards

There was a time when it was more common for community members to run for school boards not to push a single agenda but to benefit all children in their districts. With politics taking the driver’s seat at board meetings, superintendents find themselves out of a job when their values don’t align with board members’ personal beliefs. 

In turn, these districts struggle to find educators willing to step into the storm or choose less-experienced candidates or individuals from outside education. 

Because politicization has distracted the focus away from student achievement, many voters are taking a step back and dedicating the time to vet each school board candidate closely. This past voting cycle, candidates supported by fringe conservative groups, such as Moms for Liberty, lost 70 percent of their election races due to their uncompromising views on book banning, learning restrictions, and censorship. 

While there will also be ideological differences, choosing board members with a collaborative mindset results in a stronger board-superintendent partnership

3. Support and Uplift Women and Leaders of Color

In speaking with Black superintendents across the country, many expressed a shared sense that Black-American male voices in leadership are intentionally suppressed, especially when they are questioning or pushing back on the status quo. Many women and other leaders of color have also expressed similar struggles.

A respectful superintendent/board relationship is essential to build a strong district. Education Northwest outlined three essential steps boards can implement to retain and support accomplished superintendents of color, including mandating training and greater accountability for members, strengthening their capacity for advancing equity by working with outside resources, and creating a safety plan in response to threats.

Furthermore, boards need to be trained in building community and opening communication channels to share successes across all student groups and activities. They should also redirect conversations away from those led by a few voices to topics that matter to every parent.

It is not helpful that the National School Boards Association has disintegrated based on partisan politics. This chaos must be repaired, and the association supporting school boards must reclaim the narrative about our public schools as good places run by good people to help kids have better lives.

Finally, because the percentage of Black, Latinx, and Asian superintendents is so small compared to white superintendents — 8.7 percent to 91.3 percent — leaders must build informal alliances with their peers and join professional networks that provide critical guidance.

The Institute for Education Innovation, for instance, offers a variety of retreats, workshops, and training and coaching specifically designed for and led by superintendents of color who possess shared experiences of conflict and resolution. In addition, IEI has partnered with other professional organizations and thought leaders to create the Education Leaders Action Network, a national coalition to empower superintendents in today’s divisive political climate.

We’re at a critical crossroads. Political discourse must take a backseat to communication, empathy, and trust to create a culture of respect that flows throughout the district. When superintendents are given the time, support, and opportunity by their board and parents to put great ideas into action and see them succeed, they set the foundation for stronger schools and greater student success.

Dr. Baron R. Davis and Doug Roberts

Dr. Baron R. Davis is the CEO and founder of the Noegenesis Group. He was the former superintendent of Richland School District Two in Columbia, SC, where he was the first Black superintendent in the district’s nearly 100-year history. Doug Roberts is the CEO and founder of the Institute for Education Innovation and creator of the Supes' Choice Awards for ed-tech companies.

The Feed


  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...

  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...