CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- More than one-third of principals in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have changed jobs or left the district during the first half of this school year, with the numbers expected to rise through the spring.
The number of principal retirements, resignations and reassignments through Jan. 31 is significantly higher than either of the previous two full academic years, numbers requested by the Observer show.
In the first five months of this school year, 57 principals had left their posts, compared with 41 the previous year and 37 the year before that.
Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh announced another retirement Tuesday and told the school board 27 more principals are eligible to retire.
CMS has 159 schools.
Parents and employees have raised concerns about the turmoil such change brings and have speculated about motives and CMS' treatment of school leaders. The emotional pitch intensified after Barry Bowe, principal of Northwest School of the Arts, apparently killed himself in January after learning his job was at risk because of a security lapse at a school dance.
"The feeling in CMS as a principal is you are not valued. There is no support. That is one reason I left," said Nancy Guzman, an award-winning principal who retired from Sterling Elementary this fall.
District leaders say the churn is caused by a round of school closings and mergers that took effect this year, a crop of baby boomers who can retire with a good pension, and a stressful environment intensified by the lingering economic slump and leadership changes at the top of CMS.
"If difficult issues come up, they're making the decision" to retire, Hattabaugh said shortly after Bowe's death and after a parent outcry followed the abrupt retirement of Rocky River High Principal Mark Nixon in the wake of a hazing investigation.
"The bar has been set so high for principals," Hattabaugh said. "It's more challenging than ever before."
Tough times are challenge
Principals are often the key to student success, faculty morale and community support for schools. When popular leaders leave, it can feel like a personal blow to everyone invested in a school, especially if the reason is unclear.
North Carolina law restricts the information that can be released about personnel decisions, such as the 11 principal resignations so far this year. Chief Human Resources Officer Daniel Habrat said none of them were dismissals - "technically."
In the case of Nixon, who left a year and a half after opening Rocky River High, Hattabaugh acknowledged there was an investigation going on but said Nixon retired in good standing. Nixon couldn't be reached for comment.
During his five years at the helm of CMS, Superintendent Peter Gorman built a reputation for shuffling principals for school reform. His nationally known "strategic staffing" plan generally started with bringing in a high-performing new principal; those who didn't produce results fast enough found themselves reassigned or demoted.
Before Gorman resigned in June, he launched a school shakeup that led to a big chunk of this year's churn. The plan - driven partly by a tight budget and partly by efforts to improve schools - closed 10 regular schools and five pre-kindergarten centers. Another change consolidated five small schools at Garinger High, each with its own principal, under one leader.
Budget cuts brought other stresses: For the past three years, principals presided over layoffs of teachers, assistant principals and other support staff. Class sizes grew; campus security shrunk, and remaining staff took on extra duties.
Boomers retire early
Districts across the country began bracing for a wave of boomer retirements several years ago.
Retirement eligibility for educators depends on age and length of service, but those who started right out of college are generally eligible for a full pension and benefits by their early to mid-50s. There's no mandatory retirement age, so many administrators in the peak years of their career are in a position to walk away if stress gets overwhelming.
Guzman, one of the veterans Gorman tapped for strategic staffing, was among those who took that option. A former national principal of the year, she reveled in the chance to make changes at a struggling school, and applauded a plan that was supposed to give her new freedom to replace ineffective teachers with better ones.
This summer, after she completed her three-year strategic-staffing commitment, Guzman says CMS sent her two teachers she viewed as unfit for teaching in a high-poverty school. Appeals to her superiors brought no change, she said: "I felt like I could no longer be effective."
Guzman now has a business coaching principals in several states.
Job stress wearies some
Steve Hall, who retired as principal of Bruns Avenue Elementary at the end of 2010-11, was shocked to hear about the number of departures this year. Like Guzman, he was one of the original strategic-staffing principals Gorman assigned to a challenging school.
But his take is different: Hall suspects the recession and all the turmoil it has brought have prodded middle-aged boomers to reassess the toll a principal's job takes on their personal and family life.
"When people's foundation is assaulted, you invariably end up taking stock," said Hall, who now works for New Leaders for New Schools recruiting and training new urban principals. It's a job that lets him stay involved in education with less stress, he said.
"There's nothing insidious going on that I've remotely heard of," Hall said. "I don't think there's any one big thing lurking."
CMS Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark, also a former national principal of the year, says many recently retired principals are taking less-stressful jobs, often teaching at nearby universities that train principals and other educators.
Mary McCray, vice chair of the school board and president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators until her retirement last summer, said she and school board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart have asked about the reasons for principal departures.
"I think any principal would tell you it's the workload and the amount of stress it puts on your family," she said, adding that rumors of cuts to the state retirement plan may be prompting people to retire before benefits shrink.
Principal purge denied
Parents and staff worried about the wave of departures have speculated that CMS is trying to get rid of its most-experienced principals,either to save money or to make way for people being trained as part of the new CMS "leadership pipeline," which includes the national New Leaders for New Schools.
Hattabaugh, Clark and Habrat say that's not so.
Because the state pays principal salaries, replacing a high-paid principal with a newer, lower-paid one doesn't free up money for CMS to spend. Efforts to recruit from outside and develop potential principals from within CMS are a response to the departure of good leaders, not a cause, they say.
"Our goal overall will be to have five hungry candidates for any position," Habrat said.
Still, Habrat and Clark say the turnover isn't likely to end soon. A quirk of the system makes February a popular retirement month, because a shorter month boosts benefits. Spring also generally brings departures.
While midyear changes can be jarring for school families, they're not unusual, Clark and Habrat say. Clark said for a new principal, it can be better to start in winter or spring and be part of hiring for the coming year.
The school board is in the midst of a superintendent search, with a hire planned this spring. That's bound to bring more changes - and new views on who should be running schools.