Nearly 30,000 Butler County students and their families now face a leadership void in their local school systems as three area districts search for new superintendents.
The most recent and high-profile vacuum was created with the surprise resignation of Lakota Local Schools Superintendent Matt Miller, who since 2017 has led the 17,500-student district, which is the largest in Butler County.
Shortly before Miller going public on Jan. 18 with his departure at the end of this month, the Journal-News was the first to report on Jan. 9 that Middletown City Schools Superintendent Marlon Styles Jr. was also leaving his leadership post of the 6,300-student district by the end of February.
And Edgewood City Schools have seen a rare, mid-school year retirement of its superintendent Russ Fussnecker.
All three cited different reasons for their moving on and both Miller and Styles had lined up new jobs prior to their announcements. Fussnecker, a former Edgewood High School principal and long-time employee with the 5,000-student district retired from his post.
Local and state education experts say a local school board’s legal responsibility to hire a school system’s superintendent is the single most important decision the elected boards make.
No one knows that better, nor has more experience on both sides of those decisions, than former Butler County-area superintendent Tom York, who has led two districts and now sits on two local school boards.
“The superintendent’s job, no matter where it is, is so important because they help create and drive a vision for the district and then make sure it reaches those goals,” said York, a 43-year public schools veteran and former Edgewood and Madison Schools superintendent who now sits on the governing boards for both Butler Tech and Edgewood Schools.
It’s a hard job and even harder to find the best person to do it, said York.
“It’s a big role for boards and there are great expectations for superintendents,” he said, adding it is often a thankless job.
“There are not a lot of people standing in line to pat you on the back.”
“Steam rolled” by pandemic, boards now face key hiring decisions
And now, even more so, Lakota, Middletown and Edgewood mirror all other school districts locally and nationally in scrambling to recover from historic learning losses caused in recent years by disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since COVID-19′s onset in March 2020, local public schools — and their publicly elected boards — have been “steam rolled” by the pandemic and related controversies, said a top official with Ohio’s school board association.
A string of pandemic and non-pandemic controversies have boiled up in recent years — including student quarantines, student mask requirements, forced remote learning and more recently controversies over Critical Race Theory and other political polarizations, said Cheryl Ryan, director of board and management services for the Ohio School Board Association (OSBA).
“The pandemic presented school districts, boards and superintendents in particular with challenges never before seen,” she said.
School systems everywhere are in a frenzy of changes and reforms to close the lag in learning, adding to the always high stakes of picking a superintendent, said Ryan.
The OSBA represents almost all of Ohio’s 613 local school boards and those board members’ task of hiring a superintendent impacts local communities far beyond school campus grounds, she said.
And countless studies have shown young families with children often weigh local public schools’ quality as the main factor in deciding to move to a community. While residential and business property values, as well as the ability to attract commerce development, are also directly impacted by how good the schools are.
“It’s one of their (boards) most important responsibilities and most boards take it very seriously,” said Ryan.
“And the fit between the superintendent and the board is absolutely critical. It’s not a one size fits all job (superintendent) and it’s one of the most difficult” decisions for boards.
Chris Urso, long-time president of the Middletown Board of Education, said the hiring of a superintendent was important prior to the pandemic and even more so now as districts everywhere deal with its disruptive aftermath.
“Superintendents have the opportunity to really shape the foundation that families and children have as they go through those important years,” said Urso.
“We’ve been fortunate in Middletown to have an innovative and thought-provoking superintendent but we are excited by what the future brings for our schools and children as we transition.”
Middletown, like Lakota and Edgewood, saw their boards quickly appoint interim superintendents to temporarily bridge their rare, mid-school year vacancies in the top district job.
The usual course of timing for schools and their superintendents is to announce departures during the winter that see district leaders agree to finish out the current school year.
Early winter and spring are often times when superintendent candidates are then solicited, finalists determined and interviews conducted by school boards with those hired usually starting on Aug. 1 prior to the beginning of a new school year.
Next for school boards: Working with interim leaders
Miller and Styles departures were surprise announcements to their school communities, though Styles had been a finalist early in 2022 for the superintendent’s job with Cincinnati Public Schools.
The Lakota board simultaneously announced Miller’s resignation and the promotion of Assistant Superintendent Robb Vogelmann, who was a finalist for the job in 2017 and a decades-long veteran of the district, as interim superintendent while the board then decided on its next steps regarding a new leader.
Vogelmann was also appointed acting superintendent in late 2016 in the wake of the unexpected departure of then Lakota Superintendent Karen Mantia.
“The board has full confidence that Mr. Vogelmann will do an excellent job as our interim superintendent. We will communicate with our staff and families once next steps have been determined,” said Lakota Board of President Lynda O’Connor.
And Vogelmann has clearly stated his interest in the top job, touting to the school board during its meeting earlier this week his long history with Ohio’s eighth-largest school system stretching back to being hired by Lakota as a math teacher in 1997.
Edgewood also quickly appointed an interim superintendent — former Talawanda Schools leader Kelly Spivey — but Edgewood officials said this week the board has not shared any timelines yet for hiring a permanent superintendent.
Urso said he and his fellow Middletown board members were prepared for the departure of Styles, who had garnered wide national attention for his reform efforts to try and improve Middletown Schools.
The coming decision on the next city school leader is the highest of priorities for the board, he said.
“We take this hiring very seriously because we understand the bearing it (hiring) has on a whole myriad of different pieces of our schools and our community.”
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