Idaho experiencing “unprecedented” superintendent turnover

When trustees from West Ada voted to extend an offer to hire Derek Bub as superintendent on April 27, it marked the latest change among Idaho’s superintendents, which has been a growing trend over the past couple of years.

At least 22 school districts in Idaho will have a new superintendent next school year. At least one third of the state’s 114 traditional school districts have hired a new superintendent in the past two years.

“It’s an unprecedented amount of turnover right now,” said Idaho School Boards Association Chief Deputy Misty Swanson.

District superintendents are responsible for leading Idaho’s 312,000 kids and managing half of all tax collections as nearly $2 billion goes to K-12 public education. Plus, superintendents are often the CEO of the community’s largest employer in Idaho’s rural communities.

Heather Williams, Boise State University associate professor and program coordinator for executive educational leadership, said she has been looking at superintendent turnover in Idaho for years and has had graduate students at the school engaged in research on it.

Williams said superintendent turnover “adversely impacts student success, often impacts staff morale, derails continuous improvement efforts or district initiatives, and contributes to organizational dysfunction. It also simply costs the district time and money.”

She added that superintendency endorsement had accounted for one of the highest numbers of alternate, provisional or emergency certifications requested by Idaho school districts, which shows there is a shortage of certified superintendents applying for the open positions.

All of the state’s 10 biggest school districts have named a new superintendent over the past six years:

  • West Ada: Derek Bub hired in 2021
  • Coeur d’Alene: Shon Hocker hired in 2021
  • Idaho Falls: Jim Shank hired in 2021
  • Oneida: Jon Abrams hired in 2021
  • Vallivue: Lisa Boyd hired in 2021
  • Boise: Coby Dennis hired in 2019
  • Bonneville: Scott Woolstenhulme hired in 2019
  • Nampa: Paula Kellerer hired in 2017
  • Twin Falls: Brady Dickinson hired in 2017
  • Pocatello/Chubbuck: Doug Howell hired in 2015

The number of superintendent searches done by the Idaho School Boards Association has risen dramatically over the past eight years, from one search conducted in 2014 and three in 2015 to 15 in 2020 and 13 so far in 2021.

Finalists for the West Ada superintendent position participated in a forum on April 19, 2021. From left are Derek Bub, Bret Heller, Sam Jarman and Wendy Johnson. Nik Streng/Idaho Ednews

The ISBA’s superintendent search program was launched in 2014 with Swanson and former West Ada Superintendent Christine Donnell guiding school boards through the process. Swanson said she started the program after hearing from school board trustees saying that they didn’t know how to properly conduct candidate searches.

The ISBA does not run searches for all school districts (Madison and Cassia County both hired a new superintendent without conducting a search at all), meaning that the number of new superintendents over the years could be higher.

Swanson said the ISBA is getting more and more superintendent searches over the years because more school boards are aware of the service, but she also acknowledged that COVID-19 is affecting peoples’ plans. She said there is a population of superintendents in the state who reached the Rule of 90, which calculates when educators in the state can start collecting retirement. Swanson said there were some Idaho superintendents who saw the pandemic as their reason to retire with their pension.

Swanson said she has heard rumors that the high turnover among Idaho superintendents might continue for another couple of years before flattening out.

“I hate to lose that institutional knowledge,” she said. “There’s so much experience here.”

The new superintendent learning curve

When starting a new superintendent position, Swanson said it takes time to get acquainted to the position. For a veteran superintendent in a new district, like Pat Charlton in Jerome, it takes some time to get to know the staff members, parents and students of the district.

“He already knows how to be a superintendent. The hard part of the job, he already knows,” Swanson said. “But he doesn’t know the staff or the students yet.”

Wil Overgaard has spent the 2020-2021 school year as the interim superintendent in Buhl after seven years as superintendent in Weiser. Even though Overgaard moved from Weiser (a rural town of 5,400 with 1,500 students in the district) to Buhl (a rural town of 4,500 with 1,300 students in the district), he said there is a lot to learn when a superintendent enters their new office.

“A new superintendent has a steep learning curve under normal circumstances, regardless how much they think they know about the position,” Overgaard said. “Every district has a unique character and culture that develops over time.”

First-time superintendents, like Derek Bub in West Ada, will have to navigate meeting patrons of the district while figuring out the job of superintendent.

Overgaard said the biggest thing he learned when he took over as superintendent in Weiser is how to lead an entire school district, which required a lot of patience.

“The buck stops at your office and you have to be as thorough, thoughtful, and patient as possible in addressing the important and sometimes controversial issues that come to you over the course of a school year,” he said.

Nampa’s Paula Kellerer took over as superintendent in 2017 after a stint as dean of the college of Adult and Graduate Studies at Northwest Nazarene University, but before that she was the assistant superintendent of Nampa. She said the best advice she’s learned since taking over the position was to build a strong relationship with staff members and also other superintendents.

“Surround yourself with colleagues who will tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear,” Kellerer said.
Nik Streng

About Nik Streng

Nik Streng graduated with his bachelors degree in creative writing from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., in 2013 and graduated with his master’s in journalism from the University of Oregon. 

Read more stories by Nik Streng »

Republish this article on your website