Thursday, March 07, 2019

Retiring rural school superintendents leave big shoes to fill

Touchet School District Superintendent Susan Bell reads to kindergarteners. (Union Bulletin photo by Sheila Hagar)
Rural school superintendents are used to wearing many hats, frequently acting as principals, handling district finances, navigating complicated state regulations, subbing for sick teachers or bus drivers, and even performing maintenance. Plus, they attend students' sporting events and competitions to show respect and care for students and their families.

"Like many things in education, it revolves around money," Sheila Hagar reports for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. "Fewer students equals fewer state dollars, meaning many jobs that would be parceled out to department heads in larger districts land in the superintendent’s lap in small communities." But, though smaller districts routinely share resources like counselors or speech therapists to stretch education funding, each district must have its own superintendent.

It takes a special skill set, a tolerance for extra-long work days, and a love of small towns to be a rural superintendent, which is why rural school districts have such a hard time hiring them. And though rural principalships have some of the highest turnover rates in education, rural natives tend to stick around longer in rural education jobs. Rural educators and administrators are frequently graduates of the schools they work for as adults, or graduates of other rural schools, Hagar reports.

It’s the latter for Susan Bell, 60, the retiring superintendent for the Touchet School District in southeast Washington, near Walla Walla. She was an assistant superintendent in another rural Washington district when the Touchet job opened eight years ago, but was eager to tackle the challenges in Touchet. And though her days routinely stretch past 14 hours, she knows she’s making a difference. "Every kid is known and supported," Bell told Hagar. "We have strong graduation rates because of that."

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