The Superintendent Sabbatical: Uncommon But Not Singular
November 01, 2023
Appears in November 2023: School Administrator.
Maria Libby’s six-month sabbatical in 2022 from her superintendent duties in Camden, Maine, may strike some as unique, yet a handful of other superintendents have been granted extended time off in the past few years.
Paid sabbaticals, however, are not the norm in K-12 education. They are more commonly associated with tenured faculty at colleges and universities. More widely in the nonprofit sector, a 2019 survey by the Society of Human Resource Management found 11 percent of its member organizations had policies granting unpaid sabbaticals for employees, with 5 percent offering extended paid time away.
Executives at two of the nation’s leading superintendent search firms said they were personally unfamiliar with any instances of school boards granting the inclusion of sabbatical clauses into contracts of newly hired superintendents or renewal pacts.
Research by School Administrator magazine turned up several recent examples in the superintendent ranks:
The school board of Minnesota’s Spring Grove Public Schools granted Rachel Udstuen a three-month sabbatical in early 2022 and approved a contract with the regional intermediate agency for an interim leader. Udstuen says she used the time away from her duties, which was unpaid, “to do some research on human-centered leadership, and the board was willing to let me do that.”
In Winooski, Vt., Sean McMannon built a four-month break into his renewed superintendent contract with the school board in 2021. He took the break during the first half of 2022 to travel with family and resume wellness routines after gaining the board’s permission to use 40 days of sick leave, 20 days of vacation leave, three days of personal leave and 10 days of paid leave with the board offering to pay for an additional 10 days.
“My intent was always to see [the district] through COVID and the completion of [the $60 million] construction project to achieve and maintain a level of organizational stability that we had built since 2013,” says McMannon. After 10 years as Winooski’s superintendent, he assumed the top post of the Kingdom East School District in Lyndon Center, Vt., in July.
Kyla Johnson-Trammell took advantage of a 3½-month sabbatical in fall 2022 that was approved by school board resolution in California’s Oakland Unified School District. The board’s action said, in part: “In recognition of the superintendent’s extremely demanding work schedule, during which she is required by job duties to work most evenings, weekends and holidays, the board wishes to allow her extended leave time on an occasional basis.”
Johnson-Trammell, who recently began her seventh year as Oakland’s longest-serving superintendent since the 1970s, says her board recognizes the value of investing in sustainability of school system leadership.
She used the time away to do some deep reflecting, saying she “journaled daily about my experience and how my body, mind and spirit were different as a result of the gift of time. Also, journaling about what changes in my rituals/routines when I returned to work would I hold myself accountable to implement to integrate more regular opportunities for self-care and self-reflection on a weekly basis.”
Johnson-Trammell says she connected with trusted mentors to consider “how I wanted to show up differently as a leader upon my return.”
A Beneficial Option
Jacinda Conboy, who oversees legal affairs for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, reports coming across one or two sabbatical provisions in superintendent contracts during her 12 years with the association. She believes it’s a concept that could benefit the profession.
“It is a conversation I have had with superintendents who feel it would expand their learning and thinking and potentially provide stamina to stay in the job longer, but I’ve definitely had more conversations than actual contract provisions,” she says.
Glenn “Max” McGee, who heads the Hazard Young Attea search firm based in Schaumburg, Ill., believes sabbaticals might be viable in circumstances where a school district had an experienced deputy superintendent or even a former superintendent from the district available to step in for six months.
But school boards would be highly reluctant to offer a contractual provision for a sabbatical to someone who is just starting as a new superintendent, says Stephen Joel, who has handled searches for the McPherson and Jacobson firm in Omaha, Neb., since 1996. “However, I have heard of the rare occasion where a beloved superintendent receives additional time for consulting, educational travel, etc.,” says Joel, who spent 37 years as a superintendent. “The word ‘sabbatical’ doesn’t come up.”