In May 2018, The Broad Center—a nationally respected organization that develops and assists educators— published a report titled, “Superintendents stay in their jobs longer than we think.” That report concluded that an average school superintendent’s tenure is six years. 

Dr. Angela Hairston must not have received her copy of that report, because just over a year after being hired to lead the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, she turned in her resignation, and on Dec. 1, will take charge of the Danville, Virginia, school system. Hairston’s reasons for leaving Forsyth County were both nostalgic (she grew up in Danville) and logistic (her husband currently works for the Danville Police Department). 

Nevertheless, her announcement shocked the community and left WSFCS in the lurch.

First, let me say that I was a big fan of Dr. Hairston. She appeared on my Triad Today television program multiple times to discuss various policy initiatives, and I can tell you that she was the real deal. Hairston didn’t need any on-the-job-training or adjustment period. She hit the ground running, was a good listener, and wasn’t afraid to make decisions. Her proposals didn’t always meet with Board approval, but when extra money was needed for increasing teacher pay, Hairston successfully lobbied voters to pass a sales tax referendum to cover the cost— not an easy task considering Forsyth County had rejected a similar tax hike just two years before.

She was also the kind of leader we needed in case the school system was ever faced with a crisis, so when COVID-19 appeared, Hairston effectively navigated the school system through state-ordered shutdowns, implementation of online learning, and a confusing set of mandates for re-opening.

Hairston’s handling of the pandemic was masterful and comforting, yet, as The Broad Center’s report warned, “It’s problematic if educators adjust to one leader’s vision for the district if that person then leaves as plans are coming to fruition.” 

Translation? It’s not a good idea to leave your job in the middle of a pandemic, regardless of the reasons.

Hairston’s sudden departure is unusual by local standards. In fact, all of the WSFCS superintendents in recent memory have remained on the job for at least three years. Hairston’s immediate predecessor, Beverly Emory, served for five years; Marvin Ward, who presided over the system for much of the 1960s and 1970s, served for 13 years; and Don Martin (who preceded Emory), held the post for 19 years. A typical superintendent’s contract runs for two to four years, with the Board offering extensions in one to two-year increments, so no matter how you spin it, Hairston’s leaving was an anomaly.

Speaking of contracts, in the old days, a superintendent who left the job early was required to reimburse the school board for the money they spent on recruitment. According to the North Carolina School Board Association, the average cost to search for and hire a new superintendent is around $15,000, but that figure is much higher whenever a national headhunting firm is employed. Sources tell me that no such reimbursement clause exists in Hairston’s contract, but it should.

As much as I admire Hairston, and as sympathetic as I am to anyone who wants to return to her roots, there should be a price to pay for abandoning ship just after leaving port.

Going forward, all local school boards should include a reimbursement clause in every new contract. It costs a lot of money to find the right person, and it costs a lot of momentum when that person leaves early.

Someone needs to pay for the damages.

Jim Longworth is the host of Triad Today, airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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