Who wants to lead America’s school districts? Anyone? Anyone?

A school bus drives down Front Street on Monday morning, March 13, 2017, in downtown Juneau. (Photo courtesy Tripp J Crouse)
A school bus drives down Front Street on Monday morning, March 13, 2017, in downtown Juneau. (Photo courtesy Tripp J Crouse)

ELKO, Nev. — After years leading school districts on the East Coast, Michele Robinson wanted to come home.

In May of 2020, the Las Vegas native accepted an offer to become superintendent of the Elko County School District, which serves roughly 10,000 students in northeastern Nevada. Her tenure began just a few months into the pandemic when coronavirus cases were surging across the nation and education officials were grappling with whether and how to reopen schools.

As hard as those first months were, the gradual return to in-person learning in fall 2020 was harder. Parents and community members — angry about mask requirements and bristling at potential Covid vaccine mandates — pressured Elko County School Board members and district officials to flout state directives and exert local control over those decisions. At some point last school year, board meetings devolved into people shouting at district leaders to watch their backs. Security at meetings was increased.

Robinson concluded they weren’t and resigned in June 2021.

Nationally, about 25 percent of superintendents have made a similar decision in the past year, compared to a typical turnover rate of 14 to 16 percent, according to the American Association of School Administrators.

Superintendents’ reasons for leaving vary. As many as 1,500 to 2,000  superintendents have stepped away after delaying their retirement during the first year of the pandemic, estimated Michael Collins, president of Ray and Associates, a national search firm that consults with school boards to find new leaders.

“Superintendents stood by their districts when they thought this would be a couple of months,” said Molly Schwarzhoff, executive vice president and a lead recruiter for Ray and Associates. “It’s a whole different ball game now. Once we saw what we were up against … a lot of people just said, ‘I don’t want to play anymore.’ ”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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