Among the many jobs listed on SchoolSpring.com, a popular education recruitment website, there are nearly a dozen advertisements for school principal positions in the Upper Valley.
Some degree of turnover in school leadership positions is expected even in normal times, said Page Tompkins, president of the Lebanon-based Upper Valley Educators Institute. The average term for a principal is between three and five years, he said.
But amid the COVID-19 pandemic-hit third school year, even communities like Hanover — often seen as a coveted landing spot for educators — are feeling the pinch of leadership, he said.
Trustee turnover affects some communities more than others and is especially acute in smaller districts, Tompkins said.
“For rural communities, this is old news,” he said. “Finding, attracting (and) retaining directors is difficult.”
In the Upper Valley, White River Valley High School in Royalton is looking for a new principal, as is the First Branch Unified District, which includes schools in Tunbridge and Chelsea, and is also looking for an assistant principal. .
Claremont is seeking a Principal and Vice-Principal for Stevens High School; as well as the principals of two elementary schools. Lebanon is looking for a permanent principal for Mount Lebanon Elementary School, and Hanover High is also looking for a permanent principal. Hartford is advertising for a career and technology center assistant director and a college assistant director. Woodsville High School is also looking for a new principal, and the Springfield School District (Vt.) is looking for vice-principals for high school and middle school.
Although the pandemic is a factor making the job of a principal more difficult, every school and community has its own challenges.
“Each opening in each district has its own kind of dynamics, challenges and limitations,” Tompkins said.
Hannover Secondary School, which has around 740 pupils, has been on the hunt for a permanent headmaster since former headmaster Justin Campbell left after a tenure of around eight years in June 2020. Meanwhile, the role is filled on an interim basis by Julie Stevenson, who served as Dean of Students during Campbell’s tenure.
So far, the Dresden school district has conducted two unsuccessful searches for a permanent principal, SAU 70 superintendent Jay Badams said. This year, the district is conducting a third search, but so far the results are similar.
“Again, we are seeing quite a low turnout in terms of the candidate pool,” he said.
The district, among the highest-paying in the state, would typically receive 20 applicants for primary employment before the pandemic. Now they got about half of that.
Badams, who was on his first day back at work after his own period of self-isolation, said he believed amid the pandemic some managers had left the field or retired. Others may be less likely to make a change in the lingering uncertainty.
Normally, being a principal is “one of the hardest jobs you can have, certainly in education”, he said.
Running a school during a pandemic is not something principals are trained to do, Badams said. This has involved reassuring families and informing them of COVID-19 cases, and trying to maintain a normal school calendar even when staff are restricted. It has been difficult for schools to find substitutes and bus drivers, paraeducators and special educators this year, and schools are limited in their ability to transition from in-person to remote learning.
“It’s really, really hard work,” he said.
Perhaps the thing that has changed most for principals during the pandemic is their continued demand to communicate with families as a “kind of chief comforter,” Badams said, adding that it’s “almost as protracted crisis communication”.
“It’s a lot to take on,” he said.
In Lebanon, Superintendent Joanne Roberts said school officials are reviewing applications for the position of principal at preK-4 Mount Lebanon Elementary School. The position, responsible for overseeing the school which has around 240 students, became vacant when principal Gino LoRicco resigned in September “due to unforeseen circumstances”. Katie Roach, the school’s vice principal, replaces the acting principal this year.
“We look forward to conducting interviews and selecting a candidate who will continue to provide a positive and supportive working and learning environment for our staff, students and families,” Roberts said in an email.
Tompkins said schools like Hanover High and Mount Lebanon that have other administrators ready to replace are likely to see less disruption when a principal leaves, even suddenly.
“Other places, maybe Stevens, maybe don’t have that pool of people,” Tompkins said. In this case, the schools are trying to figure out “can we get someone here?”
It’s “a totally different proposition,” he said.
Claremont Schools lost a husband and wife couple who ran Bluff Elementary School and Maple Avenue Elementary School last year, Claremont School Board Chairman Frank Sprague said. This year, these positions are filled on a provisional basis. More recently, Stevens High School principal Patricia Barry announced she would be retiring at the end of this year, her eighth in the role.
Barry, who is 63, said his departure was spurred by various factors. She has a 93-year-old mother who needs care and three grandchildren she would like to spend more time with.
“Those bonds are a big part of the decision,” Barry said.
Another influence, she says, is that over the past three school years, work has changed. After a year and a half without in-person classes, some Stevens freshmen arrived this fall with the social skills and academic abilities of sixth-graders.
“Compensating for that difference has become daunting,” she said.
Barry, who prides herself on being a problem solver, said she now finds that in the wake of budget cuts, she has dwindling resources to solve problems as they arise.
“You become paralyzed,” she said. “I did everything I could. At this point, now, I have to deal with my own quality of life (and) my mental health.
Barry, who is a breast cancer survivor and fully vaccinated and boosted, still managed to contract COVID-19. In addition, the stress of the job took its toll on his physical health. At 63, she said she felt like she thought she would at 70.
“I kind of have to change my work/life balance,” she said.
She hopes spending time with her grandchildren and baking bread are “things that will bring me joy”.
In the short term, Stevens, who has a roster of around 550, is currently looking to fill an immediate opening for an assistant manager, Sprague said. The former deputy director went on maternity leave and did not return, he said.
Hiring committees have been formed and the district is working to determine what it wants to see in these new headteachers.
“I see it as an opportunity,” said Sprague, who served as Stevens’ principal from 2012 to 2014 and previously held other principal positions at Claremont and Newport schools.
He noted that Superintendent Michael Tempesta, who joined the district in 2019, is relatively new to his job and “as a superintendent, being able to choose your own team is a great opportunity.”
Sprague said he’s optimistic the district will be able to find good candidates for the vacancies, in part because the board recently negotiated with the trustees’ union to be able to add $5,000 to a salary offer when they are about to hire a new manager.
“We’re quite happy with our ability to attract highly qualified people with competitive compensation,” he said.
In the White River Valley Supervisory Union, three principals have announced that they will not be returning next year: White River Valley Secondary School Principal Reed McCracken, Chelsea Public School Principal Mark Blount , and the principal of Tunbridge Central School, Michael Livingston.
“There are a lot of educators (who) sometimes look in the mirror and say, ‘Is this really what I signed up for? Superintendent Jamie Kinnarney said of the added challenges of running a school during a pandemic.
For his part, Kinnarney said he encourages school leaders to be kind to themselves in how they measure their success.
“We kept the doors open today,” Kinnarney said. “It’s normal to say that it’s a real success.”
A search is underway to replace McCracken, who came to Royalton in 2018 to become the first principal of White River Valley High School, which came into being when Bethel and Royalton merged the schools. The school has an enrollment of about 190. School officials plan to review applications this week and conduct interviews next week. If they can’t find anyone in that first round, they’ll repost the position, Kinnarney said.
“When I’ve spoken to my colleagues there’s less interest in high school principal positions,” he said.
A separate search is underway to find a superintendent to lead the First Branch Unified District, which includes schools in Tunbridge and Chelsea. Whoever is hired in this role will then conduct a search to find an assistant manager. Tunbridge and Chelsea each have pre-K-8 schools this year, with enrollments of 117 and 129 respectively. But next year, Tunbridge is expected to welcome kindergarten to grade 4 pupils from both towns and Chelsea will welcome pupils from grades 5 to 8.
Blount and Livingston announced their departure in a joint letter explaining that they thought it best for the district to find a new “leader (who) is moving on to the next phase,” Kinnarney said.
There is a bit of a question mark surrounding the future of First Branch, as Chelsea voters will be asked if they wish to leave the merged district in the town meeting vote.
Still, the district is moving forward with hiring. He received 10 applications for the post of principal, and school officials selected five candidates to interview.
Kinnarney said he was “optimistic” he could “find a strong director and leader for First Branch.”
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3213.