Composite image of Jim Chasse, Hermon; Regan Nickels, RSU 22; Susan Smith, RSU 63 Credit: BDN composite

Susan Smith made her decision to resign from Regional School Unit 63 around March 1, after six years as superintendent and director of instruction and curriculum of the Holden-area school district.

She officially tendered her resignation to the school board on March 28, joining three other Bangor-area superintendents who have announced in recent weeks that they would step down.

Jim Chasse stepped down at the end of March after announcing that he would leave the Hermon School Department for a job closer to his family in the Belfast area. Regan Nickels announced that she would step away from RSU 22 in June and return to the Pacific Northwest in July to become superintendent of schools in Sequim, Washington.

David Walker, the superintendent of RSU 34 in Old Town, will retire at the end of June. The school district announced last month that Matthew Cyr would succeed him. Cyr is the current superintendent of Veazie schools, which will need to appoint a new superintendent after he leaves.

A wave of educators both in Maine and nationwide have decided to change jobs during the pandemic or have left the profession entirely, at a rate that the executive director of a national superintendents’ organization said he hadn’t seen in his 50 years in education.

The pandemic exacerbated existing problems, such as too few resources to meet students’ mental health needs, while revealing new ones, like polarization around COVID protocols, that drove school officials to consider resigning, according to interviews with education officials.

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Those Bangor-area school leaders joined a statewide and national trend of educators leaving their jobs as a result of a “significant amount of stress during the last two years,” said Dan Domenech, the executive director of the School Superintendents Association, which provides training and resources for superintendents across the U.S.

“As a superintendent, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” Domenech said, referring to the criticism that superintendents faced for instituting masking policies and promoting student vaccine clinics.

The result has been an exodus of leadership unlike any other period he’s seen in his 50 years in the education profession. While there is a national teacher shortage, superintendents’ resignations draw more attention, because as the executives of their districts, they are more visible, Domenech said.

The result has been a vacuum of leadership that is difficult to fill, especially as “stability of leadership is a hallmark of any school district’s success,” he said.

Smith said that her six years as a superintendent had always been rewarding and challenging, but that the last two years had been particularly difficult.

“It’s always been a difficult but rewarding job,” Smith said. “But COVID caused the percentage of the difficult time to go up.”

She attributed her decision to resign — and that of her fellow outgoing superintendents — to several factors, like an aging population, declining COVID case rates and educators wanting to step away after long careers.

“Superintendents and other educators probably feel that they’ve helped their districts get through what we hope is the most difficult of the COVID years, and so now, it’s time to think about what else is out there,” Smith said.

In addition to daily challenges like helping students navigate hybrid and remote learning, Smith saw more instances of “incivility” during the pandemic that impeded educators’, community members’ and parents’ ability to communicate effectively with each other.

Superintendents had to make a number of “COVID-related decisions [that] have not just been unpopular, they have divided communities,” she said.

“Over the last few years, it has been more common for educators to be called terrible names over the phone, and at public meetings and [via] email,” Smith said. “That happens now, and that didn’t happen in the past, and it’s hard to have a productive conversation when somebody’s swearing at you.”

Helping students navigate mental health challenges has also been draining, she said.

This school year, 28 students from the 200-student middle school needed immediate crisis support because they were considering suicide. The district worked with families, counselors and law enforcement to ensure that kids received support, but the demand for such help far outstrips the supply.

“There’s just not enough mental health services for kids and families, and that takes a toll on educators too,” Smith said.

Nickels, RSU 22’s third superintendent in 50 years, said there had been no precedent for teaching during a global pandemic, requiring creative solutions to ensure students’ academic and mental wellbeing.

Since students have returned to school for full-time, in-person instruction, RSU 22 has made efforts to reimagine its curriculum and reach students who thrived outside of classroom learning but are having difficulty with the transition back to the classroom. Nickels said this will continue after she leaves the district, through the goals laid out in the RSU 22 strategic plan, which the school board approved in December.

“The pandemic opened our eyes to the ways in which education could be delivered and the way in which some approaches better aligned with student needs than others,” she said.

Smith said she hoped that the pipeline of future superintendents was restored soon. She pointed to a state law that guarantees a minimum $40,000 salary for teachers as a step toward ensuring educators could financially stay afloat.  She also said organizations like the Maine School Superintendents Association provided much-needed training and support.

Smith encouraged people to reconsider making knee-jerk comments about school leaders’ decisions.

“Educators have a great background knowledge and we need to listen and learn and keep refining our practices and listen to what the community wants, but also, we know what’s best for kids,” she said.  

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.