PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — School districts across Oregon have struggled to hire and retain superintendents in the last five years, according to the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators.
The job has frequently become contentious, as school leaders handle the continuing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and face tensions from school boards, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported on Wednesday.
“We’ve seen an incredible amount of turnover,” said Krista Parent, the coalition’s deputy executive director.
Sixty of Oregon’s 197 school districts have superintendents in the first or second year of the job, she said. Twenty-five districts will have new superintendents this year, including two of the state’s largest: Salem-Keizer and Hillsboro.
Nyssa, Crook County, Jordan Valley and Oakridge school districts were still seeking a superintendent as of this week.
Parent, who is a former National Superintendent of the Year, said Oregon and the entire country are in “crisis mode” for school district leadership.
According to her data, Oregon has had 154 new superintendents in the last five years. Some districts, including Corbett and Woodburn, have had three or more leaders in that time.
Parent said a natural exodus of superintendents who were retiring or aging out of the system was expected, as has happened in other fields. But turnover at this level was unexpected — exacerbated by lasting impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic and school boards’ recent increased politicization, she said.
Having constant change in the superintendent’s office often leads to instability in a school district, she said.
In 2022, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill to protect superintendents from being fired for “no cause.”
Melissa Goff was dismissed without cause from her role as superintendent of Greater Albany Public Schools in 2021. Goff said at the time she was removed for having different values, such as ensuring equity was integrated into teaching. She supported the bill, citing the need for stronger protections for school district leaders.
“I ask for your support of this bill so that our superintendents may do the work they are legally and ethically bound to do without the threat of an unwarranted dismissal,” Goff wrote in a statement at the time.
The Coalition of Oregon School Administrators operates an academy for new superintendents that helps leaders adjust to the job, Parent said. Participants learn about communicating with school board members and how to work with the board, who essentially act as a superintendent’s boss.
But Parent said more is needed, including requiring training for school board members and superintendents about how to work together. With current tensions between elected school board members and superintendents high in some places, that training could lead to better relationships, she said.
She said bringing in leaders who reflect a district’s diverse student populations also needs work. According to Parent’s data, only nine of the superintendents in 216 school districts or education service districts in Oregon are people of color, and only 49 are women.
Parent said she has hope for the future on that front, noting that the coalition’s program to help school staffers obtain their administrator licenses currently has over 400 candidates — compared with just 12 when the program started in 2012.
“You don’t just jump to the superintendency. You’re an assistant principal and a principal and a curriculum director and so on,” she said. “And so, if we’re really going to change the system, we have to start here and get that pipeline to a place of having a lot of diversity.”