SC superintendents resign under the pressure of COVID

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Dorchester School District Two Superintendent Joe Pye fought back tears as a group of elementary students read him goodbye letters while crowded together in a reading nook. The goodbye letters were part of a class activity first and second grade students at Beech Hill Elementary School were doing to let Pye know how much they appreciated his leadership over the past 23 years.

Pye is one of at least 19 superintendents in South Carolina who have left their positions since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Pye, who is 74, announced his retirement in November.

He said that his retirement is not specifically due to the pandemic, but while he’s proud of what he’s done to navigate the district through the unprecedented health crisis, his fondest memories are of working with children.

While the number of superintendents leaving during the pandemic seems large, it is not unusual for that type of position. The average tenure of a superintendent is five to six years, and the average annual turnover rate is 14 to 16 percent, according to the American Association for School Administrators.

The rate South Carolina superintendents are leaving their jobs is also consistent with pre-pandemic levels. In the 2018-19 school year about 15 percent of total superintendents were new to their positions, according to S.C. Association for School Administrators. In 2020-21, 17 percent were new in their roles.

What is troubling education authorities is that the supply of superintendents is drying up both in the long and short term. Superintendents are now put in the frontline of political wars over masks and vaccinations. They have to educate children who jockey back and forth between virtual and in-person learning as new variants of coronavirus spread through the country. They have to navigate this all while morale among educators is at an all- time low and teacher retention rates in the state have plummeted.

District authorities are asking themselves: How can we convince people to become superintendents when we can’t even get them to become teachers?


Pye had been thinking about retirement for some time, but it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted nearly everything he knew about the job that he finally made the decision to say goodbye.

“I was, every year, finding myself being taken further out of my element,” Pye said.

When the pandemic hit, school superintendents were forced to readjust every expectation they had about their jobs. Their priorities suddenly became masks, student quarantines, isolation periods and social distancing. They started pushing other school issues like student performance, funding and staff shortages to the wayside. They scrambled to keep students safe.

On top of it all, nearly every decision the superintendents were required to make became political. Board meetings sometimes turned aggressive as parents protested mask requirements and quarantine protocols.

Superintendents across the board have said the experience is harrowing.

A National Superintendents Roundtable survey of 400 district leaders showed that 63 percent considered quitting their job over the 2020-21 school year. (Eighty-three percent of the respondents remained in their positions while about 10 percent retired.)

For some, it has impacted their home life, taking valuable time away from their families. Eddie Ingram, who served as superintendent in Berkeley County School District, retired last year after his wife had to go to North Carolina to take care of his granddaughter who was put in remote learning during the pandemic.

He said it was stressful worrying over how school decisions would impact the health of students. He also found himself concerned about students who went “missing” during the pandemic, meaning they didn’t show up to virtual classes or respond to emails and messages.

“When they’re home and we don’t know where everybody is all the time, it concerns us,” he said.

Both Pye and Ingram left on good terms. For other superintendents, problems with the pandemic exacerbated fissures that already existed between them and their school boards.

Board tensions

Last June, the superintendent of Lexington Richland School District Five Christina Melton abruptly left a month after she was dubbed “Superintendent of the Year” by SCASA. Emails obtained by The Post and Courier show that in the months leading up to her departure there was eroding trust between her trustees.

On Dec. 29, the Charleston County Board of Trustees voted to accept former Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait’s resignation. Though the vote was conducted in public, all discussions about Postlewait’s departure were done in closed-door meetings.

School board members have stayed quiet since, citing privacy and confidentiality concerns about the public position.

It’s not uncommon for superintendents to be asked to resign when board members feel that they aren’t living up to standards. There’s no data to show that these kinds of resignations are happening more frequently, but the pandemic has put education issues in the forefront.

“The school boards are elected and they have constituents that they have to answer to,” said Scott Price, executive director of the S.C. School Boards Association. “But at the end of the day, they make decisions as an education team with their superintendents that are in the best interests of students and staff.”


Education leaders are concerned about how the pandemic is going to impact the supply of school administrators in the future. Typically, school administrators like Pye start off as teachers. They move on to be assistant principals, principals and eventually school administrators. From there, they might advance to superintendent.

Nearly 7,000 South Carolina teachers did not return to their school district after the 2020-21 school year, according to a November 2021 report from the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement. Only 23 percent of the 6,900 teachers who left went on to teach in another S.C. district.

Those gaps in teacher availability will ultimately lead to a dwindling supply of school and district administrators, SCASA Executive Director Beth Phibbs said.

“When people sign up, when they choose a profession in education, it’s to educate young people, it’s not to navigate through a pandemic,” she said.

With the pandemic putting children’s safety in danger, actual education has fallen down the list of priorities, and it’s starting to show. In September, the 2020-21 South Carolina School Report Card showed students struggled to keep up, with standardized test scores dropping from the 2018-19 school year in nearly every area except for English I.

It’s ultimately up to superintendents to find a solution. But the job will continue to require more resilience than ever.