School superintendents’ rapid job churn transforms rookies to veterans

When Russ Fussnecker was promoted to superintendent of Butler County’s Edgewood Schools in 2015, the 48-year-old never imagined three short years later he would have become the “dean” of local school system leaders.

But a historic sea of change continues to sweep over the county’s school leadership with an unprecedented wave of retirements and resignations.

“Wow was my initial response,” he said when his status was pointed out to him.

“I have been a superintendent for only three complete academic years now (and) becoming the most tenured superintendent in Butler County is admittedly a surprise to me,” said Fussnecker, a former Edgewood High School principal who is in his first superintendent’s job.

The trend’s impact on school families is significant.

Butler County’s 11 public school districts — including Butler Tech — enroll nearly 70,000 students.

Superintendents are hired by school boards, which do not manage districts but oversee its operation, but they supervise almost every aspect of a public school system. Their executive decisions affect the learning of thousands of students over the years.

They are also the highly visible figure head of a school system and set the leadership tone for the district.

The end of the current school year has also seen final days of some local veteran superintendents, including Kelly Spivey of Talawanda, Phil Cagwin of Monroe and Curtis Philpot of Madison Schools.

The unexpected resignation of Hamilton’s Tony Orr in April — done as part of a separation agreement with its board after allegations of violations of district policies — furthers this year’s leadership turnover.

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Hamilton Schools Business Director Larry Knapp is now superintendent of the city school district.

And the bordering Mason Schools in Warren County will also see Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline — a seven-year veteran — retire this summer from leading the 11,000-student district.

A year ago, 22 public and private school districts — including the Cincinnati Archdiocese schools and two county career schools — in the two counties saw 14 had hired new superintendents since 2015.

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In 2016 Rhonda Parker of New Miami Schools, Billy Smith of Fairfield and Scott Gates of Ross also started as superintendents as did Jon Graft as head of Butler Tech.

Matt Miller and Marlon Styles Jr., Lakota and Middletown leaders respectively, have just finished their first year on the job.

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It’s a tough job getting tougher, said education experts, and unlike years ago when superintendents like Hamilton’s Janet Baker — 24 years on the job, among Ohio’s longest runs — or Lakota Schools’ Kathy Klink (11 years) set the standard for longevity, a shorter tenure is now the norm.

Chris Brown, a former superintendent of Southwest Schools in Hamilton County and now Superintendent of Butler County Educational Service Center, which provides services to all county school districts, said the historical turnover is striking but not unexpected.

“The number of new superintendents is not surprising considering the national average for a superintendent is two to four years in their current job,” said Brown.

Fussnecker said, “this turnover in superintendents is a reflection of the state of education and how quickly it is changing in so many areas. The constant legislative changes and the unintended impact those changes have on schools can lead quality administrators to exit the profession earlier than anticipated.”

But change can also be good, Brown said.

“New leadership can be positive for a district looking to move in a new or different direction in regards to a new focus of the community,” he said.

Styles, who quickly launched sweeping reforms to modernize Middletown Schools when he started in August, said the new wave of leaders bring fresh energy to their various districts.

“It all means positive impact” for local school families, said Styles.

“You’ve got a group of innovative minds who are energetic and passionate about providing students with an exceptional educational experience,” he said.

Spivey, who started leading Talawanda Schools in 2011, echoed the optimism, saying, “the newer superintendents will lead our county well. We have a lot of bright energetic educators that are ready to change the world, one child at a time.”

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