TAMPA, Fla. — Broward county, Orange County, Sarasota and Collier—
These are just a few of the Florida school districts that have lost their superintendent in just the past six months.
According to Florida’s Association of District School Superintendents, over the past three years, more than 40 of Florida’s 67 district bosses have left their positions on campus.
“We have had a rather historical turnover,” explained Bill Montford, a former Florida Senator and district superintendent. Today, Montford leads the state’s superintendent’s association.
“I can't underscore how difficult it is being a school superintendent and, quite frankly, over the years, it's become even more challenging,” Montford said.
Challenging because of what has become part of a larger state and national trend among executive school leadership, where their performance on campus is taking a backseat to politics in the classroom.
What began with controversies over Covid-19 and masks has evolved into battles over book bans and state mandates over curriculum- from sex ed to civics, history and race.
“It's been the most bizarre time in public education for several years,” said former Orange County Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins. Dr. Jenkins retired this past December after ten years as head of one of the state’s largest school districts.
“The level of stress is beyond what they've ever experienced before. It's a combination of things. It goes from the pandemic and into school violence. Then covers issues around materials and which books should be allowed on library shelves,” she said.
While Jenkins’ exit was without controversy, pre-planned under the state’s retirement program, several Florida superintendents, including ones in Sarasota, Broward and Brevard counties, recently left after being booted out or encouraged to resign by a new wave of conservative school board members.
“We have so many people that are just frustrated and want to reset and focus on education, and that’s what we’re going to get,” said Bridgett Ziegler shortly after she won her re-election onto the Sarasota County school board back in August. Ziegler is an original co-founder of the conservative group Moms for Liberty, which made supporting candidates who could win school board seats a top priority last year.
But the injection of partisan politics into Florida classrooms, Jenkins fears, could have a lasting impact.
“What I worry about is that we will frighten off some talented young, cabinet-level individuals who should be the next wave of superintendents,” she said. “I also have some concern that really well-intentioned board members will be frightened off from the job as well because of the vitriol attacks that come from one side or another,” Jenkins said.
“They're tired of being political punching bags to the political climate that we're dealing with in Florida,” said Democratic Florida Senator Shevrin Jones, who represents parts of Miami-Dade County. Jones is also a former Florida teacher.
“I think that we're going to come to a place to where parents and teachers and administrators, they're sick of it,” Jones said.
At the end of this school year, several additional Florida school superintendents have already announced they’ll be leaving too, as the state’s Superintendent shuffle carries on.
“I hope that we are past the worst of it for the turnover because we’re moving further away from the pandemic,” said Jenkins.
When asked what he would tell Florida superintendents who are mulling over whether they should stay, Montford replied, “what do I tell them? Hang in there. Regardless of what Tallahassee does, let's do our very best to provide for those children,” he said.