School leaders want to see more diverse pool of superintendent candidates
A recent study on gender disparities in Oregon superintendencies is creating ripples on school boards and at OSBA.
As the Tigard-Tualatin School Board chair, Maureen Wolf made the draft study’s findings part of a compensation review for Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith in the spring.
As OSBA Board president, Wolf says school boards can do more to create a welcoming and equitable climate for female superintendents.
The study released in November found gender inequities in pay, opportunity and treatment as well as numerous stories of women being overlooked and underrespected. As of Dec. 1, Oregon had 47 female superintendents for its 197 school districts. Nearly three-quarters of Oregon teachers are women, but only about a quarter of superintendents are women.
The Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, the Oregon Commission for Women, the Oregon Department of Education and the governor’s office together created “Just Not Ready for a Female: An Examination of the Inequities in Oregon’s Superintendency.” The study called out OSBA and school boards to do the “true work of equity.”
Wolf was among a group of female OSBA Board members who met last month with the Oregon Women Superintendent Network to talk about the study and next steps.
School boards’ most consequential power is the hiring and firing of superintendents. With a grinding pandemic and red-hot political issues, the superintendency in Oregon is experiencing unprecedented turnover. This year, roughly double the number of school districts hired new leaders compared with pre-pandemic years, according to Krista Parent, COSA director of executive leadership and licensure.
Parent said Oregon needs more high-quality superintendents and it will get them by opening minds to the broadest pool of candidates possible.
“The pool of candidates is very small, and the need is very great,” Parent said. “If we automatically eliminate any group of potential great leaders, whether it’s women or leaders of color, we are doing our districts and thus our kids a significant disservice.”
Parent said female superintendents tend to have more teaching and school experience and higher degrees. According to Parent, 12 of the 17 Oregon superintendents with doctorates are women.
“They have to be the super shining star in so many ways just to be seen as on the level playing field with most male candidates,” she said.
Parent helped gather data for the study and presented it around Oregon and to the media. She is quick to point out that most school board members are hardworking and passionate volunteers who want to do the right thing for children.
But school boards hold the gate keys, and the study’s recommendations include that school boards apply an equity lens to hiring and that school boards need more training and possibly oversight.
OSBA does not have the authority to make school boards do anything. OSBA’s leaders, however, are committed to administrator diversity.
“The end game is about boards making decisions about their superintendents,” said Wolf, who is now on the Northwest Regional Education Service District board. “I do think there are some things OSBA can do, and we are already working to make that happen.”
OSBA strongly supports a bill requiring training for school board members and superintendents. The bill stalled in the last legislative session, but OSBA and COSA are teeing up a nearly identical bill for the 2022 session.
Wolf said female superintendents asked OSBA to do more equity and culture training after the Greater Albany Public Schools board fired Superintendent Melissa Goff.
Goff faced school board member resistance for a variety of reasons, but she said an underlying gender bias led to her downfall and will give future female candidates pause.
“GAPS will not get all the best candidates applying for that job,” she said. “That gives students short shrift. They will not get the same experience, because the pool is not as deep.”
For 2021-22, 43 districts changed superintendents, roughly double the number as in the years before the pandemic, according to Parent. Twenty-nine districts hired a first-year superintendent, eight of them women. Seventeen districts lost a female superintendent but only 12 hired a woman, and five of those spots were interim.
OSBA Board Development Director Steve Kelley said the depth of the candidate pool is an increasing concern. According to Kelley, OSBA has done more than half of Oregon’s recent superintendent searches.
Kelley said that although districts are still finding good fits, the overall candidate pool is less experienced and less educated. He has heard similar complaints from national counterparts, possibly because of the increased pressures.
“The superintendency is becoming more about navigating politics,” Kelley said. “Most administrators stop right below so they can still be working with kids.”
Kelley said his team works during the search to create an anti-bias environment but the report would give his team things to think about. OSBA’s process includes training after the search to set up communication, evaluation and other protocols that help address bias.
Wolf said OSBA should look at its messaging with its board member recruiting efforts, such as Get on Board, to make sure communities have candidates who reflect their values.
“We have work to do, but this is the time to make a long list of things to do,” she said.
Parent said Education Northwest is finishing up a study of Oregon superintendents of color that could reveal some commonalities to guide training and other strategies to increase superintendent diversity.
At the same time, COSA is training aspiring administrators to better match school boards’ specifications. Parent hopes the study would open boards’ eyes to policies that make it hard for otherwise qualified people to move up the school district ranks.
“Don’t limit the possibilities of leadership for your district by not understanding the challenges the women and superintendents of color face,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA