Superintendent shake-ups continue in school districts across Texas, with several announcing new hires and departures during the past week.

Some of the changes contributed to an ongoing series of “musical chairs,” creating new vacancies as open spots are filled with superintendents hired away from other districts.

More than a dozen Texas school districts are actively searching for new superintendents, but the list of districts that are looking is constantly changing—as is the list of superintendents who are looking to change districts.

Peaster ISD

Peaster Independent School District, a rural district in Parker County with about 1,700 students, is now officially in the market for a new superintendent, after five trustees voted to approve a “voluntary severance agreement” with Superintendent Lance Johnson during a special school board meeting Tuesday night.

Two trustees, Chuck Bratcher and Scott Johnson, abstained from voting.

Johnson had been on a “temporary leave of absence” for more than two months. District officials told the public in an October 6 email to the community that Johnson was taking “voluntary” leave, and trustees quickly appointed an acting superintendent, Keith Scharnhorst, who is president of Clyde Education Facilities.

However, emails to Johnson from Board President Mike Bowling and Vice President Aric Kram show that the leave was forced.

“This was not a voluntary leave; it was a ‘volun-told’ leave,” Peaster mom Alisha Wendell said following Tuesday’s vote to oust Johnson.

She said the temporary leave was “a chess play to move him out permanently,” adding that if there was merit to trustees’ issues with Johnson, the district would have terminated him.

“There’s a pattern of the board not being honest with the community,” Wendell said. “Our board has not been transparent. They did not want to public to know what was going on because they did not want to deal with the backlash from Mr. Johnson’s supporters.”

Another Peaster parent chalked it up to “small-town politics.”

Wendell drew a similar conclusion based on her observations at school board meetings (which the district does not record) and documents she obtained from the district through public information requests

She also noted the involvement of attorney Rhonda Crass of Leasor Crass, a “boutique” law firm specializing in representing public schools that advises Peaster ISD and is currently conducting superintendent searches for multiple Texas school districts including Carrollton-Farmers Branch and Grapevine-Colleyville.

Johnson drew both praise and controversy since his hiring in January 2020. He’s best known as the superintendent who defied lockdowns and mask mandates during the COVID outbreak, leaving the choice of masking up to students and their parents.

“We stand on biblical truth, live by faith, use common sense, and expect personal responsibility,” he said earlier this year.

In an email to school staff on Wednesday, Johnson said he will stay at Peaster ISD through June 2023 as “superintendent emeritus.” He also noted improvements made during his tenure.

“Today, our budget is balanced, our fund balance has grown from $1 million to $4.6 million, we have passed back to back bonds that included building a new intermediate school, and the elementary has improved from a low ‘C’ rating to a mid/high ‘B’ rating,” he said.

Johnson has not yet said if he will pursue another superintendent position when his time is up at Peaster ISD.

The district will likely pay Leasor Crass to conduct a search for a new superintendent.

Midland ISD

On December 7, Midland ISD in West Texas named Stephanie Howard as the “lone finalist” for the district’s open superintendent position.

Once school boards narrow their superintendent search to a single candidate, state law requires the name to be public for 21 days before the person is officially hired, allowing the public time to vet trustees’ selection.

Howard is a popular choice among parents in the district, as she previously worked in Midland ISD for 14 years as a teacher and an administrator.

“I cannot be happier to hear this news!” said one Midland mom, calling Howard’s selection a “major win” for the district’s teachers and 28,000 students.

Howard is currently the top administrator at Crane ISD. If she is ultimately hired by Midland, Crane will be added to the list of districts searching for a new superintendent.

Midland ISD hired law firm Walsh Gallegos to conduct their superintendent search.

Northwest ISD

On Monday night, Northwest ISD named Mark Foust as their lone finalist for superintendent.

The district, located north of Fort Worth with about 29,000 students, had been in search of a new top administrator since September, when Superintendent David Hicks died unexpectedly after only four months in the position.

Foust currently works as superintendent of Kerrville ISD. If he gets the final nod from Northwest ISD, that will create yet another superintendent opening.

Prosper ISD’s embattled Superintendent Holly Ferguson also sought the position, participating in a final round of candidate interviews on the Saturday before trustees announced they’d selected Foust.

Parents in Prosper have been calling for Ferguson to resign since late August, when a lawsuit exposed a sex-abuse scandal and cover-up by the administration.

She’s holding onto her current job for now, as the community awaits results of an “independent investigation” into the scandal, but if her job-hunting is successful, Prosper ISD trustees will also be hunting for a new superintendent.

Northwest ISD used Leasor Crass as its search firm.

Seagraves ISD

Seagraves ISD Superintendent Joshua Goen committed suicide last week, after being arrested for secretly recording female students in their locker rooms.

Last month, the district placed Goen on paid administrative leave after learning the FBI was investigating him.

The Panhandle district southwest of Lubbock will be added to the list of Texas ISDs seeking new superintendents.

The High Cost of Superintendent Shuffles

Superintendents often receive super-sized salaries.

According to Texas Education Agency data for the 2021-22 school year, four Texas superintendents took home base salaries above $400,000; another 55 were paid at least $300,000 a year.

The lucrative salaries are supplemented by benefits like insurance; pension contributions; and allowances for cars, phones, housing, and continuing education. Superintendents’ contracts often include hefty bonuses as well—all provided at taxpayers’ expense.

School boards defend the high salaries and perks as the cost of attracting top talent.

In 2018, Grand Prairie ISD’s school board president Terry Brooks said then-Superintendent Susan Hull was “worth every penny we pay her and more.”

At the time, Hull was receiving the second-highest superintendent salary in the state, $405,795. Her contract also included lavish perks, including housing and annual retention bonuses that escalated up to $150,000—five times the median income in the district of $30,000.

Yet she spent an unauthorized $160,000 in additional taxpayer money on renovations to her district-provided house. Also during Hull’s tenure, Grand Prairie ISD’s CFO embezzled $600,000 in cash from the district. Hull never noticed.

Superintendents also negotiate favorable contracts guaranteeing employment for three to five years, but routinely walk away from those contracts without penalty—and are often rewarded with pay and benefits that continue even after they leave and a new superintendent is hired.

The “musical chairs” among superintendents is expensive for taxpayers when they end up paying for two top administrators. Executive search firms are an added expense, and if they work on a commission based on the new superintendent’s salary, they are incentivized to push trustees toward offering higher (taxpayer-funded) salaries to candidates.

Whether or not districts hire search firms or lawyers to help with the process, elected school board trustees make the final decisions on selecting superintendents and approving their salaries and other contract terms.

Many Texas school board elections are held in May. In districts with seats up for election on May 6, 2023, the filing period for candidates is January 18 through February 17.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.