Former California superintendents discuss attracting and retaining LEA leaders

An EdSource roundtable conversation on Jan. 30, “Superintendents are quitting: What can be done to keep them?,” featured four former California superintendents discussing the challenges of the job and how best to support and retain these key district and county leaders. Among the top recommendations were a strong relationship with a supportive board of education, opportunities to have mentors and stronger training regarding political strategy. CSBA and the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) were mentioned throughout the panel as organizations that could help support these recommendations through training and outreach.

On the panel of former superintendents were Chris Evans from Natomas Unified School District; Vivian Ekchian from Glendale USD, Gregory Franklin from Tustin USD and Cathy Nichols-Washer from Lodi USD. The superintendents were joined by Carl Cohn, professor emeritus and senior research fellow, Claremont Graduate University.

The superintendents pointed to the pandemic as a turning point in school-community relationships, where some parents and community members railed against local educational agencies and their governance teams for following state guidance, such as school closures and masking mandates. This shifted into the “culture wars” of 2023, said Cohn.

Evans agreed that contentious politics are overshadowing the work of governing, but also pointed to an ever-growing list of demands from schools as a reason for superintendent burnout. “New work and tasks keep getting added to school districts on an ongoing basis,” he said. “So, while we are dealing with all of these things, we are having to implement two, three or four or more new things every year and we’re really not doing them as well as we should be when so many new things are coming on top of all the politics.”

Rethinking superintendent training

The group discussed how to manage contentious board meetings and keeping or refocusing meetings on relevant educational issues.

Cohn said that since the post-No Child Left Behind era, traditional superintendent preparation and training has focused on instructional leadership. “I think this whole issue around political skill and navigating a political environment has been neglected,” he said. He talked about a current grant from the Hewlitt Foundation he is leading that is looking at issues related to superintendent preparation.

Nichols-Washer, former superintendent at Lodi USD, spoke about the importance of having a mentor, especially for new superintendents. She emphasized this mentor needs to be an experienced superintendent in another district or someone retired from the position, as sometimes “there are things a superintendent can’t talk about with someone in their own district if it isn’t appropriate.”

Evans cited the need for statewide training on both the political side and more practical governance team matters like how to plan for declining enrollment in a politically divided climate and mentioned CSBA as an association that could provide that.

Former Tustin USD Superintendent Franklin cited some of the political noise at the local level as a direct result of the Democratic supermajority in the Legislature. “We have many examples of Republican folks in the Legislature feeling powerless … their stated strategy is to take it to the local communities.”

Attracting and retaining superintendents

One new factor to be aware of when looking for a superintendent? The more recent practice of filming board meetings that can be viewed online any time. “Boards need to be mindful of how they interact with each other, how they interact with staff and the superintendent because people watch,” Evans said. “It’s a new window into a district’s governance culture that didn’t exist prior.”

Other recommendations for attracting and retaining superintendents included:

  • Providing a strong support system. “Being a board that supports and praises in public and expresses concerns in private is also something that would attract superintendents,” Nichols-Washer said.
  • Understanding of the different roles of a governance team. “It’s about trust and trusting relationships and about clearly defining responsibilities,” said Ekchian, Glendale USD’s former superintendent. “I think it’s important to communicate that so it is clear to a larger audience.”

Cohn talked about a meeting in which CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy cited an extraordinary number of new board members since November 2022 and how the political climate nationwide is reflected in California. “I moderated two panels at the CSBA conference in December — standing room only — raucous gatherings with the political divide very present in the room. Anybody who thinks California is this special place where it somehow isn’t a part of this national divide — it’s really front and center.”

Former Tustin USD Superintendent Franklin said most superintendents have good relationships with the boards that hire them — it’s board turnover that can upset that balance. “I think CSBA and ACSA is the right way to go in [answering] how do you bring on board these new board members so that they understand the roles that they’re stepping into, what the role of individual board members is, as well as the superintendent, so that they can try and work in service of children?”

The panel agreed that mentorship will be particularly important as the state budget experiences its first downturn in years, amid concerns about declining enrollment and the expiration of federal COVID relief funding. They also said another important crux in navigating the downturn will be how LEAs work with their labor partners.

Looking forward

In addition to work being done through the Hewlitt grant around superintendent preparation and training, Cohn also noted a promising program at the University of San Diego, the Future Superintendents Institute.

Franklin talked about his work at ACSA training aspiring superintendents in a cohort model that currently has 28 participants that can continue to support one another throughout their careers.

Nichols-Washer wrapped up the panel with the importance of the relationship between the board and the superintendent. “I think the most important thing in being successful in this job is the relationship with the school board,” she said.