Q&A: Superintendent Stephen Murley on leaving Iowa City Schools

Stephen Murley handles paperwork July 1, 2010, his first day at the superintendent of schools in Iowa City. He has notif
Stephen Murley handles paperwork July 1, 2010, his first day at the superintendent of schools in Iowa City. He has notified the school board he plans to resign in June 2021 at the end of his contract, a decision he discusses with Gazette Reporter Molly Duffy. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — After nearly a decade leading the Iowa City Community School District, Superintendent Stephen Murley announced plans to leave at the end of his contract in 2021.

Murley, 53, talked with The Gazette on Wednesday about his decision to leave, his experience with a high-turnover school board and his possible next steps.

His responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why announce you’ll be leaving now, when your departure won’t be until june 2021?

A: The most important thing is to make sure the board and community have enough time to make sure they are able to go through the appropriate process to fill the position. Lots of times, superintendents wind up transitioning out in April or May because that’s when so many positions are filled, and that leaves districts with limited timelines to fill the positions.

The board is going to have to go through the process of deciding on a search firm, getting community engagement as they develop a job posting, have to go through candidate selection, etc. I really felt it was important to make sure the board had enough lead time to do the due diligence they will want to do to find their next leader.

Part of it is, for me as I look to transition, I want the community to understand if they hear that I’m interviewing somewhere else or pursuing some other option, I don’t want there to be confusion about what’s happening.

Q: How long has this been on your mind, and was there something in particular that prompted you to decide to go?

A: There’s always intersection with the professional and the personal, and my youngest kid graduates this May. For me, my professional transitions have always aligned with the needs of our family. ... Knowing that the transition for him would happen in May, as a family we’ve been talking about that for a couple years.

Q: With his graduation in May 2020, is there a chance you’ll leave before June 2021?


A: He’s not starting college until August 2020, and school contracts start in July. So we considered, what is his last summer before college going to look like? Relocating for him six weeks before school might not be the best choice.

There’s always a possibility the transition could occur earlier, but we looked at it from a standpoint of letting him matriculate into college and then looking at a transition.

Q: When did you alert the board you planned to leave?

A: This is a concept that we’ve talked about in some way, shape or form for at least a couple years just because the boards have been cognizant about where my kids are in their education paths. I’ve had conversations with the last couple of board presidents over the last few years.

Q: When did you tell this board you will leave at the end of your contract?

A: Last week.

Q: How did that conversation go? The board hasn’t always been your biggest fan.

A: It went well. I think one of the things that is important to recognize is ... the superintendent is rarely, in any district in this day and age, a permanent position. I think the board was prepped for that conversation, and I think they’re understanding and supportive.

If you look at the last 10 years, and after we get through the (school board) elections here in November, I could have as many as 31 or as few as 29 different board members over a 10-year period.

Essentially, we’re onboarding an average of three board members every year. I’ve had seven different presidents, seven different vice presidents. I think being a board member is difficult in the best of situations. I think being a board member in Iowa City is a very difficult position.

I’m extremely appreciative of those willing to step up, but there’s a super steep learning curve and that causes stress in the organization just in general.

The need to go through that much learning on an annual basis puts a great deal of stress on the organization, on the people who step up to lead the board, and it’s a challenge we’ve had to deal with literally year to year while I’ve been here.


My greatest appreciation for the people who are willing to step into the fray to lead us, but that’s made the board as an entity — it’s been a difficult process for them for the last 10 years in terms of governing the school district.

I hope that I’ve done my best to help them navigate through it.

Q: Did that stress play into your decision to leave?

A: No. To be honest, it’s the new normal in Iowa City. It’s just part of what we do.

Q: What are your next professional plans — do you think you’ll be a superintendent somewhere else, will you be a full-time consultant? Will you stay in iowa city?

A: The field is wide open right now. I certainly think I’ve got another good run in me as superintendent of schools. This is my 18th year teaching at the graduate level (at the University of Iowa), and I really enjoy doing that. … I also teach for the American Association of School Administrators, I run their national superintendent certification program and teach for them, working with new-to-the-profession superintendents.

I’ll wait and let the process unfold and look at what opportunities present themselves. ... I’m not committed to packing my bags and moving. We have such wonderful friendships and relationships in the community, and we love living here. My wife works at the university, and it’s been an incredibly rewarding personal experience to live in Iowa City, so we haven’t packed our bags, our house isn’t for sale.

Q: Are you eligible for retirement benefits?

A: I am, through IPERS. To be honest, that played a role, too, because I will be eligible for retirement benefits 53 days after this contract ends (on my 55th birthday).

Q: Looking back at the last 10 years with the district, what stands out to you?

A: The people, 100 percent. The kids, the teachers, the support staff. I’ve been up here at the (Grant Wood Area Education Agency, and the last two days have probably been the most difficult of my career — having to address the administrative team at the central office on Monday and addressing the full Administrative Council yesterday.

I was incredibly emotional, I prepared myself to be emotional, but then being in their physical presence and sharing that conversation with them, it’s probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.

Having been here a decade … you form some very deep, professional relationships, and it’s hard to step away from those.

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11:43AM | Thu, September 26, 2019

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