Frequent superintendent turnover not uncommon |

Frequent superintendent turnover not uncommon

School district leaders average 3 years in position

Jack Weinstein

Shalee Cunningham

— With Steamboat Springs Su­­perintendent Shalee Cunningham's impending departure, the school district will be looking for its fourth superintendent since 2007.

Cunningham confirmed Friday to the Marin Independent Journal, of Novato, Calif., that she would be the next superintendent of the Novato Unified School District.

Cunningham joined the district in July 2008 and has said she will work until June 30 before leaving for California.

Her short stint isn't unusual. It's on par with the national average.

"Three years is pretty much the average tenure of superintendents nationwide," said Dan Domenech, executive director for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Domenech said there are several reasons superintendents don't stick around. He said the two most common are school boards wanting to select their own leaders as they turn over and superintendents wanting to advance their careers.

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In Cunningham's case, it's family. She has cited her interest in returning to California, where she has a home in the Napa Valley. Three of her four adult children also live in Napa, about a 40-minute drive from Novato.

The Steamboat Springs School Board met for a special workshop Monday to begin discussing how to proceed should Cunningham leave. At that meeting, School Board President Robin Crossan said Colorado Association of School Boards officials told her three years was the average tenure of superintendents in the state.

Jane Urschel, Colorado Asso­­ciation of School Boards deputy executive director, said she couldn't confirm that three-year average. Urschel said she thought it was anecdotal.

"There is no research that we're aware of that substantiate that the turnover on average is three years," she said. "We believe that it's driven by the turnover of urban superintendents and applied to the whole state."

But Urschel said it's a difficult time to be a superintendent in Colorado. Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, agreed.

He said major reforms to the state's academic standards and student assessments, accountability and accreditation and principal and teacher effectiveness, and the emphasis on student achievement all put significant pressure on superintendents.

Caughey added that statewide cuts to K-12 education, proposed to be $250 million next year, also play a role. He said there are many demands on the position and few resources.

"If you look just to the north, for example, in Wyoming, the per-pupil funding is more than $5,000 more per pupil," Caughey said. "And school facilities are taken care of by the state.

"We just don't have that environment in (Colorado). At some point, I hope we'll be able to fund our schools at an adequate level, and that's not happening right now."

Same story in Steamboat

The average tenure of Steamboat's past three superintendents is about 2.7 years, but that includes the one year Sandra Smyser spent in an interim capacity after Donna Howell and before Cunningham.

There is a similar trend across Routt County. In South Routt, Scott Mader is completing his third year at the helm. He replaced Kelly Reed, who left after three years with the district.

In Hayden, Mike Luppes returned to the helm last year from his 2008 retirement. Greg Rockhold's contract was not renewed after working from 2008 to 2010.

According to figures from the Colorado Department of Education, the annual turnover rate of Colorado superintendents has increased in recent years. After the 2006-07 school year, 16.4 percent of the state's superintendents didn't return.

That increased to 20.4 percent after the 2007-08 school year, 22 percent after 2008-09 and 23.4 percent after 2009-10.

During the workshop Monday, School Board members discussed whether to start a national search for Cunningham's permanent replacement or an interim, or whether to consider candidates from within the district or community.

The School Board's 2010-11 budget is $50,000, all of which remains.

School Board members didn't reach a consensus about how to proceed. Instead, the discussion will continue when they meet May 2. But they did agree that the district would pursue the best candidate possible.

"We are continuing to go from good to great," Crossan said. "We can't go to great with a mediocre superintendent. I don't think the public or the staff would put up with that."

Trend likely to continue

Domenech, of the American Association of School Administrators, said the economic recession has contributed to high superintendent turnover. He expects that to continue.

According to a once-a-decade survey the association conducts of superintendents nationwide, Domenech said 51 percent indicated they would retire in the next five years. He suspects that's partly because of decreased funding, slashed programs and growing class size, among other budget-cutting measures.

Domenech said that high turnover doesn't bode well for the districts that superintendents leave.

"The key point here that the research is very clear on is that consistency, longevity in leadership are the hallmarks of a high-achieving school system," he said. "It's what every school district should strive for."

School Board members last week praised Cunningham for what she's accomplished during her tenure. The Department of Education announced late last year that the district was among 8 percent statewide to be accredited with distinction.

And last month the department named Steamboat Springs high and middle schools John Irwin Schools of Excellence.

School Board member Denise Connelly said Friday that would be expected to continue. Despite the economic constraints, she said the School Board will continue making Steamboat an excellent district.

"We know the qualities we want in a leader," she said. "We're not looking for someone who would turn everything upside down. There's a feeling we'll keep progressing on our right track and it won't make that big a change."

— To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email

At a glance

Recent Routt County superintendents:

Steamboat Springs

Cyndy Simms: 1994-2003

Donna Howell: 2003-2007

Sandra Smyser: 2007-2008

Shalee Cunningham: 2008-present


Scott Mader: 1998-2004

Mike Luppes: 2004-2008

Greg Rockhold: 2008-2010

Mike Luppes: 2010-present

South Routt

Steve Jones: 1999-2005

Kelly Reed: 2005-2008

Scott Mader: 2008-present