The Loudoun County School Board announced the appointment of a new superintendent Friday, six months after the former head of schools was fired and indicted as part of an investigation into two sexual assaults that happened on school campuses in 2021.

The board selected Virginia Beach Superintendent Aaron Spence to take over the role.

Spence will be stepping in to lead the school division, which represents more than 82,000 students in the wealthy, diversifying county that has become the face of the nation’s culture wars because of its political battles over education policy, contentious school board meetings and national controversies.

“My personal highest priority during this process was to find a superintendent who is experienced, accomplished and successful at running a large, complex school division, and Dr. Spence fits the bill perfectly,” Board Chair Ian Serotkin said at the meeting.

School leaders’ handling of the sexual assaults colored much of the tenure of the previous superintendent, Scott Ziegler. The assaults, committed by a high school student, drew national attention and were deeply politicized. Parents and community members criticized school officials particularly for transferring the assailant from a high school where he had assaulted a student in a girls’ bathroom to another school where, months later, he assaulted a student in an empty classroom. The teen was later convicted in both cases.

Virginia Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R), at the direction of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), empaneled a grand jury to conduct a criminal probe of the school system’s response. The special grand jury found that the district badly mishandled the sexual assaults, and it called Ziegler a liar. The school board fired Ziegler shortly after the publication of the report. He and school system spokesman Wayde Byard were both indicted and are awaiting trial in Loudoun County Circuit Court in the fall.

Daniel Smith, the school district’s chief of staff, was appointed interim superintendent after Ziegler’s firing.

Since 2014, Spence has led Virginia Beach City Public Schools, a district with more than 65,000 students and 10,000 employees. At a special meeting Friday evening, Serotkin applauded Spence for overseeing significant growth in the division, ensuring that all schools became fully accredited and achieving the division’s highest graduation rates on record.

In 2019, Spence filed a complaint claiming he had experienced “abusive conduct” from two school board members that led to a “hostile work environment,” according to media reports.

Prior to Virginia Beach, Spence was superintendent of Moore County schools in North Carolina. He held administrative positions for the Houston Independent School District and Chesterfield County Public Schools, and was principal of Deep Run High School in Henrico County.

Spence was not at the meeting Friday, but Serotkin read a prepared statement from the new superintendent.

“With parental and community support and involvement from all stakeholders, we can have a trusting, collaborative environment where children have no option but to succeed. It is my goal to foster a culture built around that understanding, and one that places an even greater emphasis on transparency, while uplifting the outstanding work of our schools,” Serotkin read.

The job was posted by GR Recruiting with a salary of about $375,000 plus a generous benefits package, but Loudoun schools spokesman Dan Adams said Spence’s contract has not yet been finalized with a salary. As of July 2022, Ziegler was making $323,000.

Serving as a superintendent has always been a difficult job. But the challenges of leading a school district have been exacerbated in recent years by the coronavirus pandemic and rising political tensions within education policy, leading to turnover around the country.

These divisions have played out in Loudoun, where conservative parents have accused the school system and school officials of not being transparent and have pushed for more parental rights.

Around the Washington region, other districts have been looking for new school leadership, bringing in a number of fresh faces this year. Nearby Alexandria announced its new superintendent last month. And Maryland’s Prince George’s County — whose outgoing schools leader announced her retirement early this year while denouncing conflicts between the school board and system officials — has had 36 candidates apply to be the school district’s next chief executive.

According to Ray and Associates, a national search firm that helps school boards find new leaders, demand for superintendents started to ramp up — and outweigh the amount of interest — in 2021. The firm saw turnover among superintendents at about 10 to 15 percent before 2021. Now, that figure is closer to 20 to 25 percent. The firm previously received about 70 applications for any superintendent position but is now seeing about 30 to 35.

“If you have a board that has high conflict, or it’s a divided board, which is not uncommon anymore, candidates get to watch the good and the bad. They know more about the board going in than the board knows about them,” Executive Vice President Molly Schwarzhoff said in an interview about the state of superintendent searches nationally.

The Loudoun school board hired GR Recruiting to conduct its national search. Two recruiters held listening sessions and conducted interviews with community members and school employees.

The school board also opened a survey that received more than 4,1oo responses, most of which came from parents. Among the challenges identified for the district were teacher attraction and retention, staff morale and communication.

“The community is divided and all groups within the division want to feel valued and heard, not just those who are the loudest,” read the presentation on the findings.

Students identified the school’s system’s diversity as a strength but said the trust between parents, the board and the schools needed to be rebuilt. They wanted a superintendent who would be visible to students and make sure they had a voice.

Parents said that trust in the division is a major problem and that the new superintendent “should possess the experience to deal with the vocal minority and get the system back on track.” Community groups wanted to see less bad press and a superintendent who understands the politics of the division.

“Passionate parents can be challenging as they expect accountability,” the report read.

LCPS central office staff wanted to see someone who could manage the growth of the division, and voiced concerns about the upcoming election of the entire school board. Principals wanted to see less negative public perception and more emphasis on the good things happening in schools. They hoped the new superintendent could establish trust, transparency and stronger communication; teachers were looking to improve retention.

Board member Tiffany Polifko (Broad Run) voted against Spence’s selection, saying she did not believe that the superintendent should be selected by the current school board.

“I understand that we need to heal and we need to move on, but right now we have a gaping wound in our school system. And this current board is not the one in my belief who’s going to fix that wound,” Polifko said.

Spence is expected to relocate with his family to Loudoun County and assume office in the coming months. Smith will continue to serve as acting superintendent until that time. The Virginia Beach school board will meet June 6 to discuss the transition process.

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