It’s no secret that school districts across the country are experiencing a shortage of workers, from teachers and substitutes to guards and bus drivers.
But schools also face a shortage that is less talked about in another key position: superintendents.
Mike Richie, superintendent and consultant at research firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, said so when he presented the Lincoln Public Schools Board of Education with a list of finalists for its superintendent’s opening last Tuesday.
Only 20 candidates ultimately applied for the post of superintendent at LPS, which opened last fall when Steve Joel announced he would retire at the end of the school year.
But as he told board members on Tuesday, he is still happy with the list of four finalists that HYA presented to the board.
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“What we’re seeing is the quantity is down, but the quality is pretty damn good,” Richie told the Journal Star on Thursday. “In the past, we had maybe 50 to 60 candidates, and we couldn’t have had a better slate. We’re very happy with our slate.”
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The shortage of applicants may not have so much to do with the number of qualified applicants as it does with the large amount of openings across the country.
According to Richie, there are currently more than 570 superintendent positions in the United States, which HYA lists on its website even though it does not represent the school district.
One of the openings is just down the street: Millard Public Schools is currently conducting its own search after Superintendent Jim Suftin announced his intention to retire.
“Just in Nebraska, you have Millard; you have two very competitive districts fighting for a superintendent,” Richie said.
The pandemic and national rhetoric have a lot to do with it, too, said Richie, who has seen the effects firsthand as acting superintendent of the Tomorrow River School District in Amherst, Wisconsin. This, in turn, may have convinced older leaders to opt for retirement sooner rather than later.
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“Superintendents are beaten every day,” he said. “It makes your decision to retire a lot easier.”
Twenty-seven candidates initially applied for the position of LPS, but seven either failed to submit the necessary documents or dropped out.
This left HYA and the school board with 20 applications to sort through. HYA narrowed that list down to four this week, though board members vetted each nominee and ultimately had the final say.
* Paul Gausman, superintendent of community schools in Sioux City, Iowa.
* Peter Licata, regional superintendent of the Palm Beach County School District in Boca Raton, Florida.
* Jami Jo Thompson, Superintendent of Norfolk Public Schools.
* Antwan Wilson, assistant professor of education at Nebraska Wesleyan University and managing director of Schoolwise Educational Consulting. Wilson also served as superintendent in Oakland and Washington, D.C.
Vice Chairman of the Board, Don Mayhew, has been involved in three superintendent searches at LPS and was Chairman of the Board when he hired Joel.
Although he said he was happy with the finalists, he echoed Richie in acknowledging that there were simply fewer applicants this time around.
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“Between the pandemic and other things that are happening on the national scene right now, I think a career in education is maybe more difficult than before,” he said.
Board chair Connie Duncan assumed superintendents are simply staying in their districts for now as the pandemic continues to disrupt the education landscape.
While there is indeed a shortage of applicants, the number of applicants this time around isn’t much different from what LPS has seen in the past.
When Susan Gourley retired in 2009, 27 people applied for the job. And when Phil Schoo retired in 2004, Kathy Danek, the only board member other than Mayhew to oversee three superintendent hires, recalls there were nearly 80 who expressed initial interest, but only 23 ended up completing the paperwork, the Journal Star reported.
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Danek is impressed with the roster, which includes three superintendents with Nebraska ties — Wilson, Gausman and Thompson — and someone from outside the Midwest in Licata.
“Some (candidates) got to the top much faster,” Danek said.
Searching is a process she and her colleagues take seriously: One of the most important jobs of a board member, Danek said, is hiring and evaluating the superintendent, and Duncan added that the process was “sound” from the start.
“It has to be the most perfect search, otherwise I can’t go to bed at night,” she said.
Board members will interview the four finalists next week: Wilson and Licata on Tuesday and Gausman and Thompson on Friday. Each contestant will also meet with various small groups — like students, parents and staff — during the day and tour the city and possibly select schools, Richie said.
The public will then have the chance to hear from the finalists during presentations to the Board of Directors at 7:30 p.m. each evening. Meetings will be held at the LPS District Office and will be streamed live on LPS.org, YouTube and LNKTV. There will be no public comment, but comments can be provided online.
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Contact the writer at [email protected] or 402-473-7225. On Twitter @zach_hammack