After 31 years in public education, including five as the superintendent of the Rockwood Public Schools, Eric Knost decided to retire. Unlike many retirees who make their way south, Knost headed north. He was hired as the superintendent of the Lewis Central Community School District in Iowa. His career path follows the same trajectory as that of many others. Indeed, it seems that many of our best superintendents end up leaving the state.
Each year the Missouri Association of School Administrators names one individual “Superintendent of the Year.” Nine of the eleven superintendents chosen for the honor since 2009 have retired within two years of receiving the award. John Jungmann and Jeffrey Tucker, the 2017 and 2019 recipients, are the only two still in their jobs.
Superintendents retiring in and of itself might not be very noteworthy. After all, the association of school administrators could simply be choosing to recognize individuals after an illustrious career, and these might be people who were already on their way out. What is interesting is that “retiring” for an award-winning superintendent usually doesn’t mean what you think it means. More often than not, these individuals continue to work, sometimes as a superintendent in another state.
The 2009 superintendent of the year, Chris Nicastro, retired the year she won the award. She was then appointed as the commissioner of education for the state. The 2010 winner, Ron Lankford, followed a similar trajectory, retiring the year after he won the award and then serving as deputy commissioner for the state.
Stephen Kleinsmith retired in 2018, the year he won and promptly took up a position at Missouri State University as the director of school and community partnerships. C.J. Huff retired two years after winning in 2013. He’s been an active speaker and education consultant. So has Dennis Fisher, the 2011 winner who retired the year after receiving the award.
The 2016 winner, Mike Fulton, retired two years after winning the award. He was then hired as superintendent in Shawnee Mission, Kan. David McGeehee, the 2014 winner, also retired two years after receiving the award. He’s been on the job market and has been a finalist for at least two superintendent jobs in Kansas.
Why do so many superintendents retire yet keep working, often outside of the state? The answer is simple — the pension system. After putting in a full career, usually 31 years (there is a bump in the benefit from 30 to 31 years), superintendents can earn 79% of their final average salary (the average of their three highest, consecutive years’ salaries) for the rest of their life, and they can continue working. They just can’t keep working in a full-time education position within the same pension system. This system, and the potential financial gain it provides, creates a strong incentive for superintendents to retire and seek employment elsewhere.
Kleinsmith, who receives more than $156,000 annually in retirement benefits, is currently earning an additional $65,000 working part time for Springfield Public Schools. Nicastro received more than $164,000 in retirement benefits and $185,400 her first year as commissioner.
Fulton is the big winner. He’s collecting over $210,000 in retirement benefits annually while earning an additional $250,000 as the superintendent of Shawnee Mission.
Although Knost never won superintendent of the year, he is a well-respected superintendent. He’ll also be well-compensated in retirement, receiving over $190,000 annually and another $256,790 as a superintendent in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
For superintendents, the current pension arrangement is clearly a financial boon. At some point, however, we might want to ask if the system is really helping us retain the best superintendents in the state. The evidence suggests otherwise.
James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a distinguished fellow of education policy at the Show-Me Institute.