Looking into why retired superintendents return to work

In the last several months, we noticed a few recently retired school superintendents return to work full-time at different schools, begging the question – is this new and why are these people returning to the job?

We found the answer to why we’re more prominently seeing superintendents return to school is complex. Yes, it’s not unheard of for a retired educator to stick around in the field offering consulting services or stepping in on an interim basis here and then . . . but it seems like there are more supers coming back and signing full-time contracts just a few years – or even a few months – after they had decided to retire.

Each superintendent has their personal reasons for emerging from retirement, and a school board will also have its own reasons for hiring them. A lot of factors may be contributing as a whole to this seemingly new trend. One is generational and cultural shifts. A good number of school leaders are part of the Baby Boomer and early Gen X generations, which are either at or nearing retirement age. That is leading to a lot of the openings we’re seeing today.

Another post-pandemic shift is a new culture in work in many fields taking place remotely – a culture that does not translate to education, whether that’s a teaching job or leading a school as a superintendent.

All of this can tie into the general nationwide shortage of educators, from bus drivers and teachers all the way up to superintendents. Fewer people in general are applying for these jobs. Perhaps that’s a reasonable conclusion to draw back to why some retired folks are returning to school full-time.

Dr. Bob Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, lists the reasons we’ve mentioned as potential factors in this seemingly growing trend, though he notes he can’t point to just one cause, and there isn’t data or precedent to back anything.

“I will say it’s more pronounced,” Dr. Taylor tells us. “There’s always been superintendents returning, but sometimes it’s not been with a contract.”

He explains, “Normally that cycle has been, ‘I retire, and now I’ve become an interim superintendent. And so I’ll help transition a corporation that’s looking for new leadership,’ or it’s looking to have a specific skill set …. there has always been a history of retired superintendents coming back into service. The change has been we’re seeing now more sign contracts.”

Dr. Taylor describes what we’re seeing today as “kind of a perfect storm,” where there are more superintendent positions open than ever before, for a lot of different reasons. Some natural and some situational.

A superintendent’s job is demanding, as a school leader has to juggle a lot of tasks, while also being in the spotlight almost 24/7. As more are exiting the profession due to reaching retirement age, fewer newly interested educators are applying for these jobs, Taylor observes. A decade ago, typical a job posting would attract 25 applicants, he says, but today, there are frequently much fewer than that when a district searches for a superintendent.

“I speak with my fellow peers, association directors around the states. They’re all confronted with this. And to be quite honest, they’re all appreciative that these superintendents are willing to come back and take on the job,” Dr. Taylor reveals.

Another factor is that the superintendents we’re seeing return retired younger. In Indiana, an educator who served for 30 years can retire at 55. The number of openings we’re seeing also lends itself to that, since the pool of retirees is growing as many superintendents are reaching the 55 age range.

Dr. Taylor remarks, “You retire in your mid-50s, or your late 50s, you know, three or four years down the road. He may then want to come back on and work another eight, nine, 10 years.” He adds, “we have a bigger pool of younger retirees that would be interested in coming back.”

Also, not really relating to a shortage, some school districts may simply be looking to hire a superintendent with experience who fits their shift in vision while they’re changing leadership. A school board could seek out an already well-respected superintendent who they know will fit their goals.

“Under a certain set of circumstances, there could be mutual agreement that, you know, maybe (a school) wants to make a change in the leadership. And so that doesn’t mean that that’s a bad leader or an effective superintendent. It simply means that that situation has changed,” Dr. Taylor explains. “Therefore it’s beneficial for all parties involved, to maybe find a different direction.”

Note that more experience also can come with a higher price, too. When districts choose to hire a retired superintendent with 30+ years of experience, they’re probably paying top dollar in the six-figure range to hire them, versus a newer educator.

The Case Studies

A few people who come to mind when we think about superintendents returning to school are Hamilton Southeastern Schools Superintendent Pat Mapes, who took the job as superintendent there early this year after retiring from MSD Perry Township in June last year; Dr. Matt Prusiecki, who took the role of superintendent at Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson School Corporation just a month after he retired in MSD of Decatur Township; and Dr. Kent DeKoninck, who retired as superintendent of Greenwood Community School Corporation in 2021 and is now slated to become the superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools.

Each case has its own circumstances, but all three of these superintendents are highly-regarded in the education sector, making them potential ideal picks for some school districts searching for a new leader. All three are also still young – or at least young enough to keep working – and not at your typical retirement age, in their 50s and 60s.

Mapes stepped into HSE at a tumultuous time for the school district, after its former superintendent, Yvonne Stokes, abruptly resigned amid tensions with the school’s more “conservative-leaning” board. As Dr. Taylor explained, sometimes a retired well-known superintendent fits a new vision or direction for a district from the school board. Mapes is just that for HSE, likely seen as a “safe” choice for the district at this point. He was well-liked in Perry Township, and he sits on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Change has become clear over the first few months under his leadership, as we’ve seen several shake-ups in school leadership, with departures, hires, and promotions within. Mapes also has said he simply just missed working in a school with students, and that is why he accepted the opportunity at HSE.

With Dr. Prusiecki, he returns to Indian Creek after having been superintendent from 2011 to 2013, earlier in his educational leadership career. Prusiecki has roots in the Trafalgar area already, and he stepped in to take the superintendent job as the district may have struggled to find someone to fill the role permanently. Indian Creek was left without a superintendent just before the last school year with Dr. Tim Edsell’s departure for Clark-Pleasant Community School Corporation in July. The district had been searching for a superintendent for about five months when they hired Dr. Prusiecki fresh out of his retirement from Decatur Township.

Dr. DeKoninck, the most recent to emerge from his retirement, tells your favorite education newsletter he approached the SACS Board of Trustees letting them know he was interested in filling the superintendent position after he heard of former superintendent Park Ginder’s departure plans.

“I was 56 when I retired, so I knew that I was too young to do nothing, you know, I knew that I needed to stay involved and I love this work,” Dr. DeKoninck explains.

A large part of why he retired in the first place when he was eligible was because he wanted to move closer to his family in Fort Wayne, where he’s originally from. The SACS job opening gave DeKoninck the opportunity to jump back into being a superintendent. SACS is also special because his daughter works there as a guidance counselor, and he has three grandchildren that will be attending school in the district.

“When I retired, I always thought in the back of my mind if there’s a district that I think would interest me and if they would want me and, you know, that I think I could help, I may have an interest in returning,” Dr. DeKoninck recounts.

What’s unique about DeKoninck’s situation though, is that his superintendent contract, which was approved Tuesday, is only for one year. That’s by design, he tells us, because he’s aware of how demanding a superintendent job can be, and he acknowledges he’s getting older, so he wants to reevaluate how he’s performing on a more frequent basis.

“I don’t know how to do the job in any other way than put my heart and soul into it, and that means a lot of hours, and it does wear on you,” Dr. DeKoninck tells us.

He recounts what he outlined to the board, “I told them I said listen, I just want to be able to do what’s right for the district that you know, I want to be able to in a year if I’m still feeling really revived and feeling good and feeling like I’m helping and you want me, then you know we can look to continue on. But if not, hopefully, I’ve paved the way for someone else. Like anyone does, you want to make it place better than you left it.”

What Does the Future Hold?

Ideally, the goal is to recruit and encourage young educators to consider roles in educational leadership.

IAPSS, Dr. Taylor tells us, is actively working on this mission. The association runs two cohorts called the Indiana Aspiring Superintendents Association. Every semester, the initiative runs 17 to 23 young educators through a program of preparation to help them understand the complexities of a superintendent job.

“It’s a changing time and honestly, I am continuing as the association director, to be very focused on how do we continue to train and prepare young educators who may be interested in educational leadership,” Dr. Taylor asserts.