Several New Hampshire districts are set to start school next month without key players in their administrations, as a shrinking pool of applicants and the pressure of recovering from the COVID year make it harder for schools to hire top administrators.
Concord is about to enter its third school year with an interim superintendent and is looking to hire an assistant superintendent, a special education director and a human resources manager. The Nashua, Milford and Merrimack school districts also are trying to fill their top jobs and have extended the terms of their interim superintendents.
The market is tight, said Concord’s school board chair, Jim Richards. Retirements are coming, and a lot of districts are competing for administrators.
Although the market has been tight for years, observers say the pressures of the pandemic are making it harder to hire school leaders.
A lot of jobs got harder over the past 16 months. Restaurant servers became public health enforcers. Work piled onto IT professionals as jobs and classes went remote. The risk of catching and transmitting COVID-19 weighed on retail workers.
And school administrators took on the development of reopening policies, making sure health and safety measures were in place and working to help their students and staff manage remote learning, said Jerry Frew of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.
All that was on top of what already was a 15-hour-a-day job for many.
“Nothing in the rest of the job went away,” Frew said. “Policy still had to be developed. Instruction still had to be taking place. Budgets still had to be developed. Evaluations still had to be done.”
“I just think it has burnt out so many superintendents,” said Heather Raymond, Nashua’s school board president. She hoped the district would soon be able to find a permanent leader after Superintendent Jahmal Moseley took another job in Massachusetts.
Education’s leadership pool has been dwindling for years, as Baby Boomers retire and fewer young educators seek the graduate degrees required for many top jobs.
“Even pre-COVID, we’ve found fewer and fewer people looking to move up in administration,” said Barrett Christina, director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.
Superintendent vacancies used to regularly attract 20 to 25 applicants, he said. Now, a district would be lucky to get 15 resumes.
Nineteen people applied to lead the Nashua schools, but after one of the two finalists dropped out of contention, the school board decided to start a new search.
The job seems to get harder every year, Christina said, especially in the age of social media.
Superintendents have been sucked into increasingly political school board fights and have become the focus of families’ anger and disappointment when something goes wrong in the district, Frew said.
The last school year took a particular toll.
“You’re caught in the middle of the mask/no mask people. You’re caught in the middle of the in-person/remote people. No matter what position you take, you’re alienating some members of the community,” Frew said.
“Superintendents are educators. They’re not politicians.”
Other high-level administrators, including the student-services directors who oversee special education services and the business managers who keep the districts within budget, also are feeling more pressure, Frew said.
The pandemic pushed more than a few to early retirement, Christina said. For others, he said, seeking a new job felt like too much of a risk.
“Nationwide, I’m hearing from my colleagues that superintendents just wanted to stay put for a little while,” Christina said.
Even those that had been eyeing bigger jobs or who wanted to take a step back and go to a smaller district opted to stay put this year.
“While there were openings, there were fewer people in the candidate pool. We’ve been seeing that nationwide for a number of years now, even pre-pandemic,” Christina said.
Not too soon to start
In Concord, the search for a superintendent began in 2019, after the former superintendent’s resignation following an investigation into the way she handled sexual misconduct allegations. The district is now on its second interim superintendent after almost two years of fruitless searches.
Concord is hoping to find a permanent leader by the end of the year, when interim superintendent Kathleen Murphy’s contract expires.
Richards said the board has been happy with Murphy’s work but looks forward to a permanent superintendent, who will be empowered to make longer-term plans for the district.
“Having a full superintendent instead of an interim superintendent allows them to be a little bit more long-range in their thinking,” he said. “It’s preferable to have that stability.”
In Merrimack, a permanent superintendent will be key as the district reformulates its mission and long-term goals.
“We really wanted to further our work around the district’s vision and align the right candidate to that vision,” school board chairman Cinda Guagliumi said on Friday.
Merrimack anticipates starting a search in November, Guagliumi said, and Milford’s search will get underway in September, board chairman Judi Zaino said. Raymond, the Nashua board president, said the Gate City’s search also will resume this fall.
A few years ago, Richards said, the search for a Concord superintendent might have started in November for a candidate who would start in January. But this year, he said, the search committee already has started meeting.
“With the market as it is, it’s not too soon to get started.”