- The abrupt firing of Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen by a majority on the Orange Unified School Disrict Board of Education in California last week has pushed that community further into debate about leadership of their school systems.
- In late December, the Capistrano Unified School Board, which is also in Orange County, voted to release Superintendent Kirsten Vital Brulte from her contract effective Dec. 31, 2022. In both Capistrano Unified and Orange Unified, the special meetings regarding these personnel decisions were announced only a day or days before the votes.
- While school boards that appoint their districts’ superintendents are typically in the position to hire and fire top administrators, even without cause, there is some concern in Orange County and elsewhere in the nation that effective and popular leaders are being ousted for political reasons.
My official statement on the Orange Unified School District’s decision to fire top Administrators. pic.twitter.com/Vx4aIZfuO9— Senator Dave Min (@SenDaveMin) January 7, 2023
Increase in political divisiveness, disagreements over pandemic mitigation efforts and educational equity approaches, and an uptick in rude behavior has made the typically ho-hum flow of school board meetings more dramatic and stressful, say educators, families and community members.
These factors can also play into superintendent and school board conflicts. But while superintendent-school board disagreements are not new and are an expected — and some say healthy — part of the decision-making process, some educators and community members are concerned power struggles over superintendent contract decisions are not being made in the best interests of students. They also worry about superintendents' due process rights when they are suddenly removed from office.
In an article published in 2022 by the AASA, The School Superintendents Association's Journal of Scholarship and Practice, researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign said today's school boards are charged with addressing social and political divisiveness in their communities, as well as intense disagreements among members. "Managing this turbulent political climate requires school board members to now acquire the skills to engage diverse stakeholder groups," the article said.
A 2022 University of Connecticut Neag School of Education research brief cited three reasons school board-superintendent relations splinter: poor communication, power struggles and lack of a shared vision.
The brief suggested that as primary leaders of the school district, superintendents need to foster collaboration with their boards, including by having clear communication expectations and practices.
During a Thursday press conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by AASA and featuring the four finalists for Superintendent of the Year, panelists shared how disagreements over school policies have impacted their communities and their jobs as district leaders.
Matthew Hillman, superintendent of Northfield Public Schools in Minnesota, said "very difficult discussions" in his community helped the district focus on its strategic commitments and improve its communication about the importance of the school system.
"I think we need to lean into that unique role that public schools have, because people — despite a lot of things — they do trust us. They trust their teachers. They trust their schools. So we've had some of that that has been damaged, but we have an opportunity to come out of this better maybe than we were to start, and I choose to lean into that part."
But there is much healing left to do in Northfield and many other communities.
In Virginia’s Montgomery County Public Schools, Mark Miear was ousted from his role as superintendent in March 2022, following a dispute he had as a parent with another administrator. He returned this week to address the school board and explain the dispute during a public comment period of a school board meeting — and announced his intention to run for school board in November.
Shortly before his swift removal, Miear said, he had a disagreement with a district administrator where he admittedly "lost my temper" after he said he was pressured to first change his child's pronouns and then the child's name.
"I did not give up my rights as a parent when I became superintendent," Miear said. "I'd like to remind all parents who are listening that if the school board can infringe upon my parental rights as superintendent, they will certainly do the same to you given the chance."
In announcing his plan to seek a seat on the school board at the end of his nearly three-minute speech, Miear said, "I know that I still have much more to contribute to the MCPS community.”