Shalee Cunningham

Photo by Brian Ray

Shalee Cunningham

Frequent superintendent turnover not uncommon

School district leaders average 3 years in position


At a glance

Recent Routt County superintendents:

Steamboat Springs

Cyndy Simms: 1994-2003

Donna Howell: 2003-2007

Sandra Smyser: 2007-2008

Shalee Cunningham: 2008-present


Scott Mader: 1998-2004

Mike Luppes: 2004-2008

Greg Rockhold: 2008-2010

Mike Luppes: 2010-present

South Routt

Steve Jones: 1999-2005

Kelly Reed: 2005-2008

Scott Mader: 2008-present


Routt County superintendents in the past 10 years

— With Steamboat Springs Su­­perintendent Shalee Cunningham’s impending departure, the school district will be looking for its fourth superintendent since 2007.

Cunningham confirmed Friday to the Marin Independent Journal, of Novato, Calif., that she would be the next superintendent of the Novato Unified School District.

Cunningham joined the district in July 2008 and has said she will work until June 30 before leaving for California.

Her short stint isn’t unusual. It’s on par with the national average.

“Three years is pretty much the average tenure of superintendents nationwide,” said Dan Domenech, executive director for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Domenech said there are several reasons superintendents don’t stick around. He said the two most common are school boards wanting to select their own leaders as they turn over and superintendents wanting to advance their careers.

In Cunningham’s case, it’s family. She has cited her interest in returning to California, where she has a home in the Napa Valley. Three of her four adult children also live in Napa, about a 40-minute drive from Novato.

The Steamboat Springs School Board met for a special workshop Monday to begin discussing how to proceed should Cunningham leave. At that meeting, School Board President Robin Crossan said Colorado Association of School Boards officials told her three years was the average tenure of superintendents in the state.

Jane Urschel, Colorado Asso­­ciation of School Boards deputy executive director, said she couldn’t confirm that three-year average. Urschel said she thought it was anecdotal.

“There is no research that we’re aware of that substantiate that the turnover on average is three years,” she said. “We believe that it’s driven by the turnover of urban superintendents and applied to the whole state.”

But Urschel said it’s a difficult time to be a superintendent in Colorado. Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, agreed.

He said major reforms to the state’s academic standards and student assessments, accountability and accreditation and principal and teacher effectiveness, and the emphasis on student achievement all put significant pressure on superintendents.

Caughey added that statewide cuts to K-12 education, proposed to be $250 million next year, also play a role. He said there are many demands on the position and few resources.

“If you look just to the north, for example, in Wyoming, the per-pupil funding is more than $5,000 more per pupil,” Caughey said. “And school facilities are taken care of by the state.

“We just don’t have that environment in (Colorado). At some point, I hope we’ll be able to fund our schools at an adequate level, and that’s not happening right now.”

Same story in Steamboat

The average tenure of Steamboat’s past three superintendents is about 2.7 years, but that includes the one year Sandra Smyser spent in an interim capacity after Donna Howell and before Cunningham.

There is a similar trend across Routt County. In South Routt, Scott Mader is completing his third year at the helm. He replaced Kelly Reed, who left after three years with the district.

In Hayden, Mike Luppes returned to the helm last year from his 2008 retirement. Greg Rockhold’s contract was not renewed after working from 2008 to 2010.

According to figures from the Colorado Department of Education, the annual turnover rate of Colorado superintendents has increased in recent years. After the 2006-07 school year, 16.4 percent of the state’s superintendents didn’t return.

That increased to 20.4 percent after the 2007-08 school year, 22 percent after 2008-09 and 23.4 percent after 2009-10.

During the workshop Monday, School Board members discussed whether to start a national search for Cunningham’s permanent replacement or an interim, or whether to consider candidates from within the district or community.

The School Board’s 2010-11 budget is $50,000, all of which remains.

School Board members didn’t reach a consensus about how to proceed. Instead, the discussion will continue when they meet May 2. But they did agree that the district would pursue the best candidate possible.

“We are continuing to go from good to great,” Crossan said. “We can’t go to great with a mediocre superintendent. I don’t think the public or the staff would put up with that.”

Trend likely to continue

Domenech, of the American Association of School Administrators, said the economic recession has contributed to high superintendent turnover. He expects that to continue.

According to a once-a-decade survey the association conducts of superintendents nationwide, Domenech said 51 percent indicated they would retire in the next five years. He suspects that’s partly because of decreased funding, slashed programs and growing class size, among other budget-cutting measures.

Domenech said that high turnover doesn’t bode well for the districts that superintendents leave.

“The key point here that the research is very clear on is that consistency, longevity in leadership are the hallmarks of a high-achieving school system,” he said. “It’s what every school district should strive for.”

School Board members last week praised Cunningham for what she’s accomplished during her tenure. The Department of Education announced late last year that the district was among 8 percent statewide to be accredited with distinction.

And last month the department named Steamboat Springs high and middle schools John Irwin Schools of Excellence.

School Board member Denise Connelly said Friday that would be expected to continue. Despite the economic constraints, she said the School Board will continue making Steamboat an excellent district.

“We know the qualities we want in a leader,” she said. “We’re not looking for someone who would turn everything upside down. There’s a feeling we’ll keep progressing on our right track and it won’t make that big a change.”

— To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email


hereandthere 5 years, 11 months ago

Absolute racket these people have set up for themselves.


Fred Duckels 5 years, 11 months ago

Think about all of the tax money that goes into the schools. In this country we spend double some countries and get less in return. Ten supers in ten years is on a level with the Keystone Cops. From reading the articles in the paper today I am told that this is normal. We need a response from the board and the education community to explain this apparent lack of leadership. What private business could survive under this apparent chaos? Is it too many chiefs and not enough indians? Students need to experience an organized effort here to set an example. I hear nothing but "horn blowing" from the education community, but this lack of organization is an embarrassment to all.


Erik Dargevics 5 years, 11 months ago

Fred is right on track. Steamboat grads are ill prepared for advanced education. While we have great people in our community, the union dumb's down the teachers, consistent with the NEA initiatives.

Government unions perpetuating tenure, liberal school years, kind pensions, little discipline have driven our educational system down in ranking relative to the world.

Wake up fish bowl, you get what you give. This school board needs to do more for our kids and less for a system delivering mediocrity. It is a privilege to teach our children, and our teachers want to do better but are not encouraged or allowed to do so.

We need year round education, teachers rewarded for excellence, and teachers weeded out for mediocrity. The governor indicated interest in consolidated school districts. This is an opportunity to upgrade for our kids.

See ya Shallee enjoy the wine! Stop with the madness of perpetuating mediocrity.


Sstreet 5 years, 11 months ago

Do we want to continue to be with the 'average'? Why is that okay for our children, the staff, and the community? We continue to pay an insane amount of money to superintendents in order "to keep them here." Well, obviously that isn't a factor. Keep the money in Steamboat with our kids. Find someone that cares about THIS district (I am not at all saying that Shalee didn't care), a district of ONLY four schools- nothing compared to superintendents of city areas. We could save so much money by having one superintendent for all Routt County Schools. Wake up Steamboat! Keep our schools great by having consistent leadership and having a leader that wants to be here, will stay here, and has ties to THIS community! I am not arguing with the fact that Shalee did a good job while here but we also should look at why the schools were honored with distinction. Do you think it was all because of 1 person? It is the teachers, the staff, the families - altogether that made it possible. We don't pay teachers high salaries to stay here so why should we do the same for a superintendent? Those who are in this profession are in it because they want to make a difference, care about the students and the future- not the money.


Scott Wedel 5 years, 11 months ago

Fred, Since the school district does quite well on standardized tests and is rated excellent despite having so many superintendents, what does that tell about the role of the superintendents in that success?

Suggests to me that the experienced staff is doing a good job and the superintendent's role is more to stroke the egos of the school board.

Just the City of SS has not had a city manager any number of times and it didn't really matter. It is just another layer of management that is primarily concerned with the city council concerns.


hereandthere 5 years, 11 months ago

Professional Carpet Baggers. Apt description. Take the money and run. What great impact do we get from these overpaid prima donnas in the 2 to 21/2 years that they bless us with their presence?


pitpoodle 5 years, 11 months ago

Why can't we hire a competent superintendent from within? Northwestern Colorado is not for everyone, not everyone appreciates our lifestyle and harsh winter conditions. Superintendent candidates who are already adapted to life here probably don't need extra compensation bribes to "stay" and which obviously do not work. The "best" does not necessarily come from California. OMG. Stop the pie in the sky hiring attitude.


Fred Duckels 5 years, 11 months ago

The school board seems to get free pass considering the amount of money going to education. They have vety aptly kept the lid on district problems, I know wery little except when more money is needed. The message seems to be "trust me". This latest episode would be another day at the office if not for some blogs. Pilot???


freerider 5 years, 11 months ago

If the U.S.A. wants to get up to speed with the rest of the world the teachers union needs to be broken..

they are lazy and arrogant and seem to think that a 50 year old approch to education is going to cut it in today's world

Last year the high school fired the most progessive thinkers in their staff because they were rocking the boat and the lazy union teachers kept their jobs


Fred Duckels 5 years, 11 months ago

We spend a boat load of money on our schools and we seem reluctant to ask for accountability. We can't question mothehood! I think that the board needs to let us know what is going on, we see disclosure in the media but it always gets played down. Is this like affordable housing where it is improper to question those who mean well?


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