Southeast loses 10 school superintendents

More than half of Southeast Alaska’s school districts have hired new superintendents this year. Why are so many leaving and what impact will that have?

Southeast Alaska has 17 school districts, from Yakutat to Metlakatla.

Sixty percent – 10 of the 17 – have said goodbye to their top officials this school year.

“When you have that number of superintendents leaving at one time in a single year, it does leave a void,” says Bruce Johnson.

Southeast Alaska has 17 school districts. Ten have or are getting new superintendents. (Courtesy Alaska Association of School Administrators)

Southeast Alaska has 17 school districts. Ten have or are getting new superintendents. (Courtesy Alaska Association of School Administrators)

He’s executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators. He’s helped numerous school boards search for superintendents.

He says six of Southeast’s 10 turnovers gave plenty of notice, because they’re retiring. So it’s not the mass exit it may seem.

“The good news, I think, in Southeast Alaska is all of these will be relatively smooth transitions with plenty of time for overlap between the outgoing superintendent and the incoming superintendent,” he says.

So, why are so many top administrators leaving?

“It doesn’t seem to be a result of conflict regionwide. But it’s sort of a natural transition for many people,” says Joseph Reeves, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards.

“The negative I can see from it is that you have superintendents of school districts in Southeast who have similarities and the superintendents talk to each other. So they’ll be a lot of new people coming in and they’ll be some history loss,” he says.

Some districts hire from within, which makes transitions easier – for administrators, teachers, students and communities.

Others look farther afield, though Alaska experience is usually preferred.

Experts say that’s a healthy approach. But Diane Hirshberg of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research says there’s still a lot to learn.

“If you’re talking about somebody who is a superintendant in a Yupik part of the state and coming into a Tlingit community, there is certainly becoming proficient in the local norms and cultures. But there is also just understanding what the history of the community has been and the relationship with schools,” she says.

Nine Southeast school districts have hired replacements. They’re Yakutat, Haines, Hoonah, Klawock, Chatham, Mount Edgecumbe, Petersburg, Sitka and Wrangell. Juneau has narrowed its search to four candidates.

Read or hear reports about local superintendent changes:

Hirshberg says turnover at the top can trickle down, which can impact schools.

“One of the things we’ll often see with leadership leaving a district is that principals, school administrators and teachers will follow,” she says.

Increasingly tight budgets are making Alaska less attractive to applicants. So this year’s candidate pool is somewhat smaller than usual.

But Johnson, of the Council of School Administrators, says school districts can still attract talented superintendents.

“Many of our boards, especially in smaller school districts, are finding it challenging sometimes to find two or three quality candidates to bring in to be interviewed. But, as I always used to tell them, it only takes one great candidate to make a successful search,” he says.

Johnson’s a former superintendent himself, in Juneau, Kodiak and the state’s Mount Edgecumbe boarding school.

He lives in the capital city. And like so many other top educators in Southeast, he’s retiring this year.

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