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School Superintendents Are Exhausted, But Not Leaving In Droves

Maplewood Richmond Heights Superintendent Karen Hall watches as students leave school to demonstrate for gun safety.
File photo / Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Karen Hall, center, watches Maplewood Richmond Heights high schoolers in 2018. Hall retired this school year after taking over as MRH's superintendent in 2012.

After more than a year of having to be educators, public health experts and, at times, politicians, at least 43 school superintendents in Missouri are calling it quits.

The list includes six from the St. Louis region. The overall turnover rate among top school administrators is on par with last year but up from 2019, according to a statewide superintendent organization.

School leaders say the past year has been particularly grueling as the pandemic brought new challenges, tough decisions and increased scrutiny. And since leaders around the state have faced the same challenges, there was nowhere to turn for advice.

Rockwood Superintendent Mark Miles and other scenes from the ribbon cutting of the Eureka Elementary School on Aug. 29, 2019.
File photo / Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Rockwood Superintendent Mark Miles announced his retirement in April after two years leading the district. He faced particularly strong criticism and harassment from parents.

“While our superintendents have become pretty thick-skinned over the years about making tough decisions and knowing that there'll be a certain portion of your population not happy, never in my years of education has it been so divisive as it was this year,” said Paul Zeigler, the executive director of Education Plus, an organization that represents 54 districts and charter schools in the St. Louis region.

Zeigler said that added stress has likely prompted some superintendents to retire sooner than originally planned. A national school superintendent organization told the New York Times it is tracking “an unusual amount of turnover in superintendent positions.”

According to the Missouri Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents, by mid-May of both the 2020 and 2021 school years, 80 superintendents had announced they were leaving their jobs. In 2019, the number of departures was 65. Of that turnover, the number of retirements has inched up slightly, from 33 in 2019 to 39 in 2020 and 43 this year.

In Rockwood and Clayton, superintendents Mark Miles and Sean Doherty, respectively, caught their schools boards off guard by announcing retirements shortly after receiving contract extensions. Miles has been bombarded with angry messages from a group of parents upset over pandemic policies and the district’s diversity and inclusion curriculum.

Karen Hall retired mid-year from Maplewood Richmond Heights. In Jennings, Art McCoy has been on his farewell tour this week after leading the district for six years.

McCoy, who served on both state and regional advisory councils during the pandemic, said he actually found the new challenges of educating students during the pandemic rejuvenating after a long career as an administrator in several districts. But he added that, understandably, not all his peers felt that way.

“I like to put it this way. Many superintendents were April tired in August,” he said. “It was August, and they were already ready to be done. But school had just started.”

Superintendents were facing decisions that could be life or death for their students and staff. “And that tapped a lot of superintendents out emotionally, psychologically,” McCoy said. “Many of them said, ‘I'm just a teacher, I'm not a physician.’”

Jennings Superintendent Art McCoy waits to greet students on their way school on Jan. 30, 2017.
File photo / Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Jennings Superintendent Art McCoy waits to greet students on their way to school in January 2017. McCoy is retiring this year, though he said the date was planned before the pandemic upended education.

Kelly Hinshaw, director of leader development for MASA, the superintendent group, said this year’s turnover numbers, while higher, are not drastically different. However, Hinshaw can only speculate on the long-term effects this grueling school year will have on school administrators.

“Will there be superintendents who say, ‘You know, I didn't want to leave my district yet. I wanted to have this somewhat resolved and be back on course and so then I'll step away next year?’” he said. “I don't know that.“

Being a superintendent has always been a tough job, EdPlus’ Zeigler said, but layering non-school politics on top is making it even more difficult. And he’s not sure when, or if, that will go away.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.