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Pandemic to shape El Paso superintendent searches

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El Paso’s two largest districts are without a permanent superintendent heading into next school year, when thousands of students will return to campuses, many for the first time since March 2020.

The El Paso Independent School District has been led by Interim Superintendent Vince Sheffield since November. Internal auditor Marta Carmona was named interim superintendent of the Socorro Independent School District late last month. Both will help steer their respective districts through the summer and into the fall, as the searches for permanent hires are in their infancy.

Across the country, more districts than usual have seen their leaders retire early, resign or be fired since the start of the pandemic, said Dan Domenech, the executive director of the School Superintendents Association.

Dan Domenech

“The stress on educators in general, not just superintendents — principals, teachers, all education staff — this year has been incredible,” Domenech said. “But on superintendents in particular because they’re the ones who are in the hot seat” over divisive school reopening decisions.

Though the exits of Juan Cabrera and José Espinoza from EPISD and SISD weren’t tied to COVID-19 issues, the pandemic will undoubtedly shape the hiring process for their replacements, education experts say.

Despite the high turnover nationwide, there isn’t likely to be a shortage of applicants based on national trends, Domenech said. He cautioned, however, that the quality of applicants is more important than the number because school boards need to hire people with the experience and skills to navigate a district through unprecedented challenges.

One of the greatest challenges is the high number of students who struggled with remote learning, as El Paso schools have seen higher failure rates than previous years.  El Paso’s large districts saw fall 2020 failure rates double from fall 2019.

On top of catching kids up academically, educators have also seen a rise in mental health challenges among students.

A teacher at Barron Elementary School works with a student after in-person learning resumed earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Independent School District)

Districts with qualified internal candidates are fortunate, Domenech said: “You’re bringing someone on board that has knowledge of the district — they don’t have to have that learning curve of first coming in — and already has support from the (school board).”

School boards may be more inclined to hire an internal candidate, such as an assistant superintendent, to ensure continuity, though many are still looking at outside applicants, said Butch Felkner, the executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards’ Executive Search Services. The “whole purpose is to find the best candidate,” he said.

EPISD trustees selected the Austin-based Executive Search Services to lead the search for Cabrera’s replacement. Trustees have yet to finalize the scope and timeline, but TASB, like most firms, typically conducts nationwide searches.

SISD trustees are expected to discuss the search for Espinoza’s replacement at their June 15 board meeting, board President David Morales noted during a June 1 meeting.

Thus far, Felkner and his colleagues have interviewed EPISD staff and administrators about what they are looking for in the next hire. Executive Search Services last month launched an online survey where community members can comment on what they consider the greatest challenges and strengths within the district.

Paul Cruz

An upside of the pandemic is that it has been easier for districts to solicit feedback via online platforms like Zoom, said Paul Cruz, the former superintendent of the Austin Independent School District who left at the end of the 2019-20 school year to serve as co-director of the Cooperative Superintendency Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Cruz said the online options helped the district during its search for his replacement last spring.

“More parents or community members could quickly hop on a call, listen in and give their feedback and then still be at home and tend to either work, or family issues or both,” he said. “I absolutely think it is critical to have parent and community engagement in this process and to hear from parents about what they want to see in their district leader.” 

Input from parents, teachers and staff, and community members is used to create a job profile for applicants.

It took Austin ISD trustees five months after they selected a search firm to hire Cruz’s replacement, a timeframe that Felkner says is typical. That includes the state-mandated 21-day waiting period between naming a lone finalist and offering that person a contract. That window allows time for public vetting and contract negotiations.

Though EPISD trustees hired Executive Search Services in late March, it will take longer to get to the end of the process since the board decided to wait until summer, after newly elected board members are sworn in, to organize community meetings.

Cover photo: Students at Burges High School work on a class assignment after in-person learning resumed earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Independent School District)

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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