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As Culture Wars Envelop Schools, North Texas Sees a Superintendent Exodus

Former Richardson school district Superintendent Jeannie Stone said the increasingly contentious climate surrounding Texas public schools prompted her decision to step down. (Lauren Witte / The Texas Tribune)
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Educating kids is all Jeannie Stone ever wanted to do. She spent more than three decades in North Texas school districts, first as a teacher and eventually as an administrator.

After she was named Richardson Independent School District’s superintendent five years ago, she drew accolades for how well she advocated for district parents and the strides she made in closing the vast learning gap between students of color and white students. The Texas PTA named her superintendent of the year in 2019. Last year, the Dallas Business Journal named her a “leader in diversity.” Then it all came to a sudden stop.

She quit.

Stone did not publicly reveal her reasoning when she resigned in early December, before her fifth anniversary on the job. But now, in an interview with The Texas Tribune, Stone said the increasingly contentious climate surrounding Texas public schools prompted the decision. After being accused of promoting critical race theory, weathering backlash over the district’s decision to require face masks during a deadly pandemic and navigating the community’s divisiveness, Stone said she had to step away.

“Heartbreaking is a pretty accurate way to describe this,” Stone said. “It’s all I’ve ever known. It’s all I’ve ever done. It’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Stone is just one of many public educators who have borne the brunt of a shifting culture war — filled with fierce accusations and rising tensions often stoked by state officials — about how K-12 students learn. And she is among at least nine North Texas superintendents who have announced they would leave their jobs since the start of the school year.

While not every departing superintendent pointed to the same issues to explain their exit, the Dallas-Fort Worth region’s “great exodus” — as one expert called it — comes as educators have faced mounting political and social pressures.

A new state law limiting how race can be discussed in the classroom, community fights over whether to require coronavirus safety precautions and new scrutiny on books available on campus have turned school board meetings into rancorous arenas. Meanwhile, the pandemic has also sickened teachers and staff, often leaving fewer people to help students navigate what’s become a new normal.

“All of that creates pressure on the educators that are in the classroom, the leaders on campus and the leaders of the central office,” said Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “That’s been going on for a solid two-and-a-half or three years at this point. And so it’s creating some issues where people are considering retirements and resignations.”

Since last summer, many Texas parents have been at odds with school administrators. Some see mask mandates as an infringement on personal freedoms. Some have been appalled at explicit content in books available on campus. And many see diversity and equity initiatives — and social studies lessons on slavery and systemic racism — as attempts to make white students feel guilt or discomfort.

The term “critical race theory” has become a rallying cry for Texas Republican leaders, who use it to incorrectly describe how race is taught or discussed in public schools. In actuality, the theory is an academic discipline whose central idea is that racial bias is embedded in policies and legal systems. It isn’t taught in K-12 schools.

Accusations that the theory is taught in public schools preceded the resignation of a Colleyville high school’s first Black principal and stoked hateful division in Fort Worth.

Adding even more tension to the political war zone public education has become, Gov. Greg Abbott recently unveiled a reelection campaign plank he dubbed his “parental bill of rights,” which school leaders fear will further pit parents against administrators and teachers.

Stone believes Abbott and other state leaders should be supporting public education and not creating ways to discredit it. Instead, she said, they are stoking a narrative that public schools don’t want to work with parents and so the government has to step in.

“Those kinds of efforts only provide weapons for some to continue this dismantling of public education,” she said.

Outside pressures

Stephanie Knight, dean of the Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University, said nine north Texas superintendents leaving at the same time is unprecedented.

But she believes the sheer number of challenges these administrators have faced have made the past two years overwhelming.

“The most detrimental part of it is that the superintendents are dealing with extreme polarization around almost any decision that they make,” she said. “It would be a mistake to say that they’re running away from the job or the situation. They may be running toward a job that would enable them to have the impact that they don’t feel they could have right now as superintendent.”

Other North Texas superintendents who have resigned, retired or announced their departures this school year are Michael Hinojosa of Dallas ISD, Kent Scribner of Fort Worth ISD, Ryder Warren of Northwest ISD, Steve Chapman of Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD, David Vroonland of Mesquite ISD, D’Andre Weaver of DeSoto ISD, Kevin Rogers of Lewisville ISD and Sara Bonser of Plano ISD.

Bonser said in a public statement that she was leaving to focus on family matters. Warner told The Texas Tribune he felt it was time to retire, something Vroonland echoed in a statement to district employees.

“My retirement is something I have been planning for quite a while, and the timing of this announcement is wholly on my own terms—not in response to the pressures facing public education, the pandemic or any of the other challenges we educators have faced over the past couple of years,” Vroonland said.

Weaver, Hinojosa, Chapman, Scribner and Rogers either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for interviews.

Several of the districts have dealt with faculty shortages, student retention issues and heated responses to critical race theory over the last school year.

For Stone, the outside pressures started over the summer, right before the school year began. Community members began tagging diversity work she long championed — meant to give students of color a better opportunity at academic success — as critical race theory.

This came after Republican lawmakers passed a new social studies law regulating how race and history are taught in schools, saying that white children were being blamed for past acts. While the law never mentions critical race theory, Republicans tout it as a law that bans the theory in schools.

The work that Stone was once applauded for was turned against her, she said. Richardson school board meetings were monopolized by the topic, and board members couldn’t do anything about it.

“The passion and purpose of my work was all of a sudden named CRT and something that was bad to do,” she said. “And then that took off like wildfire, and I was never able to ever figure out a way to put that out.”

Then Stone issued a mask mandate in August, defying Abbott’s order against such required safety precautions.

Stone wasn’t facing backlash only from parents. She said Richardson was targeted as one of the only six school districts that Attorney General Ken Paxton sued for defying Abbott’s order that banned mask mandates in schools.

“It just became every single time you open up an email — it’s another challenge that you’re doing the wrong thing,” she said. “It’s you’re doing the wrong thing, when you know that you are working to do the right thing.”

Warren, the Northwest superintendent who will retire at the end of this school year, said he and his wife had discussed his retirement two years earlier, but the decision was postponed because he didn’t want to leave during the dire pandemic.

“There were just so many dynamics of what we had to do,” Warren said. “We all had to be concentrating on the job, and from our families to the kids to the staff, everybody had to be in their role. So we put the retirement question far behind us in that time period.”

A fast-changing position

Warren said superintendents have always had to solve problems and pivot quickly. While he had already thought about retiring, he said the last two school years were anything but normal.

“I think anyone who’s a current superintendent, an aspiring superintendent or aspiring leader, I think they will understand that this could very well be the new normal,” Warren said.

He closed the district Jan. 14-18 during the omicron wave of the pandemic because there was a shortage of substitutes. But a more long-term concern for Northwest ISD is the lack of teachers for its growing district. According to Warren, the district sees about 1,000 new kids a year. However, during the last two quarters of last year, the student population jumped by 2,000 students.

“The most important adults at any school district are the classroom teachers,” Warren said. “They are the true leaders of our school district, and we are all experiencing less, fewer and fewer teaching applicants coming into the position.”

Knight, the education dean at SMU, said the role of a superintendent has likely permanently changed. The way these positions are filled will no longer be dependent only on how the district stands academically, but whether the school board will fully support the superintendent and how divisive the community is, she said.

Knight will look to tackle these topics head-on at her school, which offers degrees in public school leadership. If the last two years have taught her anything, it’s that school leaders will need other critical skills, such as crisis management and improved communication with community members.

“They’re going to have to make decisions more rapidly than they have in the past, and then they’re going to have to be quick to change course when something isn’t working,” Knight said. “We haven’t moved this quickly in the past.”

“Parental bill of rights”

Abbott’s recently unveiled “parental bill of rights” is largely a political effort to win over parents who are dissatisfied with public schools as he seeks another term and faces challengers from his right in the March 1 primary.

Since last year, the governor and lawmakers have become more outspoken and hands-on about coronavirus safety measures, how schools approve books in their libraries and how social studies is taught — particularly when it comes to teaching about slavery’s long-term effect on American society.

Stone said these kinds of strategies are doing harm to communities. Parents and school administrators are at odds when they should be working together.

“We absolutely have to be working together and we can, but the whole notion is that public schools don’t want to or that they aren’t working to effectively do that,” Stone said.

Warren of Northwest ISD said everyone from the state to the local parent-teacher association must be supportive of teachers, principals and all other staff so that people have the motivation to teach.

As the impact of political decisions and opinions infiltrates classrooms, Holmes sees a divide in school board meetings and on campuses, but he hopes superintendents can concentrate on doing what’s best for students. Still, he’s worried about the long-term impacts of such a large exodus in North Texas — especially since the social and political climate shows no signs of letting up at a time when schools are already facing teacher shortages.

“In any given year, there is some level of turnover, obviously, in the rank of superintendents, but anytime the profession loses career educators like North Texas has and the caliber of leaders they’ve lost, it obviously hurts all of us in the profession because people like that are hard to find,” he said. “And they’re even harder to put into the right positions.”

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators and Southern Methodist University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Brian Lopez and Timia Cobb are reporters at The Texas Tribune, the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This article originally appeared on Feb. 4 at TexasTribune.org.

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