Lawrence school district’s superintendent vacancy reflects a growing trend in Kansas

Rick Doll is pictured in 2010 after his first year as superintendent of the Lawrence school district. Doll announced his resignation, effective at the end of this school year, at the Monday school board meeting, Nov. 23, 2015.

The Lawrence school district is not alone in its search to fill its top position. Across schools in Kansas, superintendents are vacating their posts.

In the past five years, more than half the superintendents in Kansas have resigned or retired. Some education officials think the trend could be the new norm for Kansas.

“You don’t see somebody that’s been a superintendent for 20 to 30 years, those are the people that we’re seeing retiring right now,” said G.A. Buie, executive director of the Kansas School Superintendents’ Association.

At the same time as more superintendents leave the position there are also fewer people interested in taking their jobs. The Lawrence school district hired the national firm McPherson and Jacobson to assist in its search for a new superintendent. Consultants with the firm said that applications in Kansas are lower than the national average.

“It gives us more business as the openings occur, but the other side is it’s becoming more and more difficult to recruit candidates,” said Tom Jacobson, the firm’s owner and CEO.

A trend

Since 2011, 162 Kansas superintendents have resigned or retired, according to information provided to the Journal-World by the Kansas School Superintendents’ Association. That means that of the 286 school districts in Kansas, more than half have seen turnover in the superintendent position in the past five years.

Buie said that the increased number of resignations is a combination of several factors — such as people generally staying in positions for shorter amounts of time and large numbers becoming eligible to retire — that exist in many professions. But others are more specific to public education, such as the debate over school funding in Kansas and criticism of school district spending.

“Every time you turn around someone is beating up on you, intentionally or unintentionally, and it just wears on you,” Buie said. “And we’ve been dealing with a lot of that with the Legislature recently.”

Buie said the trend of higher superintendent turnover has become more clear over the past three or four years.

“It’s one of those things, you don’t notice it at the beginning; it’s toward the end that you notice the trend,” he said.

Jacobson has also been noting a trend in Kansas. The firm, which is based in Omaha, Neb., has consultants nationwide and has been doing superintendent searches in Kansas for the past 10 years. Jacobson said that the firm began seeing fewer applications in Kansas beginning about five years ago. Nationally, Jacobson said that the firm usually gets 25 to 35 applications for each open superintendent position, but in Kansas it only receives 15 to 20.

As far as those leaving the position, Jacobson said he thought baby-boomers reaching retirement age are one of the main factors.

“They’re leaving, and we don’t have the numbers coming into the profession that we used to,” he said.


Both Buie and Jacobson noted that the ongoing debate over school funding in the Kansas Legislature is not far from the minds of superintendents in the state.

Last spring, the Legislature repealed the per-pupil school funding formula that had been in place since 1992 and replaced it with block grants until 2017, during which time lawmakers will put together a new funding formula. Funding for Kansas public schools is the biggest category of spending in the state, and several significant changes — consolidation of the number of school districts, merit pay for teachers, spending more money on instruction — have come up since the Kansas Legislature opened its session earlier this month.

Buie said that when districts consolidate administrative positions, more responsibilities are added to the role of the superintendent.

“As you’re being more efficient you may have to cut an assistant superintendent or a director or two, and those jobs may get redirected into your lap,” he said.

Jacobson said for any state with school funding issues, that pressure may contribute to superintendents considering other options.

“If you’ve been in a state long enough that you can probably take a retirement or if you’re just starting out and you find that the financial difficulties are there, you may look at another state that’s not quite as desperate,” he said.

Current Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll, 61, announced in November that he would resign his position at the end of the school year. Doll has accepted a full-time position as associate professor and executive director of the Kansas Educational Leadership Institute at Kansas State University. Doll said he thinks the increase in turnover isn’t just about a lack of financial support, but also a lack of moral support.

“At the same time that our budgets have been cut schools have been villainized by some legislators, and I know that I sometimes take that personally,” he said.

For him, Doll said that environment did contribute to his decision to take a job elsewhere, and that other superintendents may also be working fewer years than they would have.

“What’s happening here is that a lot of us, we’re at a stage in our lives when we don’t have to do the job anymore,” he said. “We are a little more financially secure. I think what’s happening is that there are superintendents that are probably working four or five years less than they would have.”


One of the undeniable effects of a new superintendent is change. Buie said although change can be good for superintendents to get a fresh start or districts to get new ideas coming in, too much change can have a negative effect on school districts.

“As you see people in positions for shorter and shorter amounts of time you see more change, you see less continuity and you see districts in more of a flux as far as understanding their direction and what that direction might look like,” he said.

Some districts look to hire from within instead of bringing in someone completely new. Jacobson said that often the firm goes to assistant superintendents to see if they are interested in the position, but that’s not always successful.

“We have a lot of cabinet-level individuals — people who are assistant superintendents — that we try to recruit and a response we often get is, ‘We’ve watched what the superintendent does and for the little difference of money, we’re happy where we are,'” Jacobson said.

Lawrence’s search

According to KSSA, 28 districts had their superintendents resign this year, and about 20 of those positions are still waiting to be filled for the upcoming school year. Despite the challenges, Jacobson said he thinks Lawrence will get good candidates applying to the position.

“Lawrence is going to be an attractive spot and I don’t anticipate any shortage of candidates,” he said.

As far as the number of applicants to Lawrence’s position since it opened on Jan. 4, Jacobson said he couldn’t say, but that most candidates apply toward the end.

“We did a survey of our applicants three years ago, and 75 to 80 percent of the applications come in within the last three days of the period,” he said. “This one just opened and we may have some people who have initiated the process, but we won’t know until we get closer to the closing date.”

Jacobson said there are several factors that he thinks will help Lawrence be competitive.

“Lawrence has a great reputation as a school district; they’re very child-centered and the board certainly is very child-centered,” he said. “In addition to that, its location is going to be a draw and university towns are also attractive to individuals that are in education.”

Earlier this week, the Lawrence school board confirmed that the new superintendent’s salary will be between $205,000 and $215,000 per year, the high end of which would amount to a 24 percent increase over the current superintendent’s salary.

Doll has told school board members that who they pick as the next superintendent is the most important decision they will make as a board.

“In my opinion they have to choose somebody that’s not only effective at achieving (the district’s) goals, but also somebody that they can work with because the relationship between the superintendent and the school board is very close.”

The deadline for application is Feb. 16. The board will choose its final candidates March 3 and March 4, make its hiring decision March 8, and the announcement will be made public by the end of that week.