Friday, August 28, 2009
San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Terry Grier could be leaving the district very soon, after only 18 months on the job. Grier is expected to accept an offer to become superintendent of the Houston school district in the next few weeks.
GLORIA PENNER (Host): All right, the Union-Tribune probably appreciated the full page ad in Thursday's edition and perhaps city school superintendent Terry Grier did as well. It was a call for Grier to stay in San Diego, and listed an impressive coalition of parents, educators, community and business leaders. So, Andrew, what's the point of this plea when Terry Grier has made it clear that he wants a reform-minded school district to work for and not one that is stuck with the ghost of Alan Bersin?
ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): Wow, that's quite a question, Gloria.
PENNER: Yeah, it took me all day to write it.
DONOHUE: I know. I forgot where we started. Well, what's the point? I don't know that there is necessarily a point. I don't think it's going to stop Terry Grier from leaving. I mean, he may be sort of mincing his words here in San Diego about not technically having a contract in Houston but when he's talking to the Houston media it's pretty clear he's on his way out the door. But what that does show you, what that advertisement does show you is sort of how Grier's departure has sent a shock wave throughout the system and you have a whole lot of people, I think, awakened by the fact that we have now – have our third superintendent leaving in the last four years. And, you know, you have parents now getting more involved. You have the business community awakened for the first time in a long time and interested in the school board in a long time. So everybody's doing a whole lot of soul searching trying to figure out if this is some sort of inherent problem with San Diego or, you know, did Terry Grier just get paid a little bit more to go to Houston. But whatever the case, it could be positive, actually, that people are going to be paying a little bit more attention to what's going on in our school district.
PENNER: Well, I find it really interesting that there is sort of this community attention that is going in this direction. I mean, I remember when Carl Cohn left a couple years ago. It seems to me there wasn't the same kind of attention paid to his departure. So let me ask our listeners about it. Are you kind of focused on the departure or impending departure of the school superintendent and what does it mean to you? Or doesn't it mean anything and is there – can somebody else fill his shoes just as easily? I'd like your opinion on it. 1-888-895-5727. Well, Tom York, since you are with the Business Journal, I've got to ask you, why is it that there's this call for Terry Grier to stay from San Diego's business community and there wasn't the same thing with Carl Cohn?
TOM YORK (Editor, San Diego Business Journal): Well, I'm not so sure there's a call for him to stay, a very solid call. I think the business community is waking up to the fact is that the school system is responsible for, you know, spending dollars. They just recently had a bond issue and they're going to be spending money to remodel and rebuild schools and, of course, this controversy erupted over whether or not there should be a project labor agreement. All of a sudden, I think, business realizes it has to get involved here and that with the superintendent leaving, I think that sort of accelerates the concern, accelerates the fact that perhaps the business community needs to jump back in here and pay closer attention to what's happening.
PENNER: Nobody's mentioned the Teachers Union yet. And yet I have to assume – Tony, that just woke you up. What's the connection between the school board, the Teachers Union, the reawakened interest of business in the schools?
TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Sure. The Teachers Union is strong, it's the strongest labor union, certainly, in San Diego if not in the entire state. The business community sees them, I believe, as an impediment to doing what the business community seems to want to do. Certainly, it's an impediment to the strong man style of authoritarian governance that the business community certainly when they pushed Alan Bersin on us, they seemed to favor.
PENNER: Wait, wait, wait. What was that? They pushed Alan Bersin on us?
PERRY: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, Alan Bersin is an interesting character in that he's the only person who, I believe, ever got the superintendent's job through essentially lobbying politically powerful elements in San Diego, the business community, the Union-Tribune editorial page in the bad old days, and, lo and behold, he became superintendent. Usually, you apply and you go through an interview and that's – which is what they'll do when Grier goes to Houston. So Bersin was a protégé in some sense of the business community and the U-T editorial page and they loved him for years and then they fell out of love with him and he had to go. But, no, the Teachers Union is real. And if Grier thinks the California Teachers Union is difficult to deal with, wait until he gets to Texas.
PENNER: And what do you know about the Texas Teachers Union?
PERRY: Oh, the Texas Teachers Union, I say this having married a wonderful woman whose mother was a Texas teacher and with all the rights and the pension and all of that. If he thinks that the Teachers Union here is difficult, he's going to find it infinitely more difficult even in Texas.
PENNER: Oh, okay.
PERRY: But the Teachers Union is the – it's the 900 pound gorilla that sits there and you have to deal with. You either have to decide to fight to the death, which Bersin tried, or you have to say you're here, you have rights, I have to work around you and get you on my team, and we haven't yet found anybody either able to either wrestle them to the ground or find a workable relationship with them.
PENNER: All right, Tom York.
YORK: I would just say the one thing I think disturbs everyone that comes into the school system is the fact that the Teachers Union is so resistant to pay for performance and I think that's an issue that's going to loom again.
PERRY: And you know the…
PENNER: It's looming right now.
YORK: Right, right.
PENNER: The governor was just here in Chula Vista at a charter school basically lobbying for tying the student performance to teachers' performance which, in effect, means teachers' salaries.
PENNER: And without that, we apparently are not going to be able to get the extra federal funds that would come to California.
YORK: Right, and that's a key point of the Obama administration, too, is that I think they want to see some sort of a connection between pay and performance on the part of the teachers. And the teachers, it's probably the number one issue that they're resisting.
PENNER: All right, before we continue the discussion on the panel, I want to hear from our listeners. They've been waiting for awhile and let's start with Jaime in Hillcrest. Jaime, you're on with the editors.
JAIME (Caller, Hillcrest): Hi, good morning. I, you know, I was just listening and I decided to call in. But I definitely think people, everyday people – I'm 26 years old. I do not have kids and I care very much about whether our superintendent is leaving or not. I'm gay and I don't have kids and I'm preparing for the fact that I'm going to pay for private school if I decide to because our system is broken. It's fractured. And, you know, if there are teachers who are part of this union out there, I want you to know that we care and at some point we – people are going to want a reckoning of why so much money is being spent on a school system that is not producing.
PENNER: Okay, Jaime, you know, and it is true that the San Diego school system is pretty low on the totem pole in terms of accomplishment performance on a national level. I mean, California's very close to the bottom. I think there are only three or four states lower than us and that's really a shame. And I think we have time to take one more call and then we can comment on them. Ruth in Escondido is with us. Ruth, you're on with the editors.
RUTH (Caller, Escondido): Yes, hi there. I just want to say—I would say this to the outgoing superintendent—goodbye, good luck and good riddance.
PENNER: Ooh, why, Ruth, why?
RUTH: And I feel as a superintendent – And I've taught for many, many years in many other states and I will tell you right now, number one, teachers unions are wonderful. They've improved the status of teachers. When I was a student many years ago, we had teachers who were graduates of normal schools and had two years of education. But at that time you had parents, you had a society that supported education, that supported teachers. Students had respect for themselves and respect for their teachers and so did the parents. We learned. We learned how to read. We did not live in a society where everybody blames everyone else but the real cause of it and that is a society where students, in most cases, are so involved with frivolous nonsense. With the screens, they don't read, they don't write. They can't communicate verbally very well. They have an attention span of a flea. Parents, who are just—I hate to say this—are just as illiterate and ignorant as their kids, and when you have a society that pays your sports people and your entertainers billions of dollars and makes fun of your educators, your society's not going to be around very long.
PENNER: Okay, thank you very…
RUTH: And as far – as far as the superintendent…
PENNER: Ruth, I'm going to – I'm going to have to – I'm going to have to interrupt you because we're getting mighty close to the break. I think you've made your point. You've elicited all kinds of reactions here at the table which you are going to get right after we take the break. And I want to throw out one question for you all to consider. Is it a natural kind of opposition, superintendents versus Teachers Union? Think about that. While you do, we're going to take a break. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner.
# # #
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner. And we are talking about the, excuse me, impending departure of the superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, Terry Grier. And at the table with me today are Tony Perry of the LA Times, Tom York of the San Diego Business Journal, and Andrew Donohue from voiceofsandiego.org. We just heard from Jaime and we heard from Ruth. Ruth was explaining how good she thought the teachers unions were and how important, and Jaime, of course, was talking about how disappointed he was in the school system and wondering if he ever has kids whether he'd have to try to put them in a private school. I'd like your comments on both these. Let's start with you, Tony Perry. Is there an ideal relationship that should exist between a teachers union and a superintendent of schools that we haven't gotten even near?
PERRY: We certainly haven't since, not just Alan Bersin but Bertha Pendleton. With the strike, now there may have been at some point in the past a relationship between labor and management at the San Diego schools – school district. But I think we have to remember, and Ruth touched on this, the dominant factor, the overriding factor, the factor that dominates all other factors in student achievement in the demographics of the parents. Two parent families, the income of the families, the stability of the families, the education of the families. There is a one-to-one relationship between that and how well their children do, regardless of what reading system, math system, and we can tinker around with hiring this great man and that great man and this system and that system, but that factor which dominates all others is out of our control so we begin then hunting, hunting for things we can change. And the one thing we've landed on is that labor union. And, indeed, there are grievances, legitimate ones, I speak as someone who's put two children through public schools and I know what it's like to go up against a teacher who's protected by the labor union. But I think we villainize the labor union way out of proportion and, certainly, that's very easy in San Diego, which is a virulently anti-labor union city. The local libertarian-themed media is anti-labor union but I think we've got to pull it back some, maybe give them some breathing room and say maybe there are other factors…
PENNER: Well, let…
PERRY: …that are more important than tenure.
PENNER: Because we're running out of time, I want to pick up on one of those other factors. We've been talking about the Teachers Union and I asked about the ideal relationship between the union and the superintendent but we haven't talked about the school board and, obviously, they – there should be an ideal relationship between the school board that hires the superintendent and the superintendent. Have we had that? Have we been even close to it? What should it be? Andrew.
DONOHUE: We haven't had that. I think the last two superintendents have gone out at least hinting at the fact that they were not happy at all with the micromanagement of the board of directors. You know, if you're going to bring in a superintendent, I mean, the ideal relationship between a board and sort of a leader is setting, you know, general parameters and having the confidence in that person that you've brought in to carry those out. And I think both the last two superintendents have seen a lot of meddling and a lot of micromanaging in a lot of the initiatives that they've tried to do, which I think is unfortunate. I mean, this board even had a long retreat, hired two different consultants with a bunch of fancy names to try to teach them how not to micromanage. But in the end, they come back and say, well, hey, I'm the one elected by the people and I'm the one who gets the crying parent on the phone at night…
PERRY: That's right.
DONOHUE: …so I'm the one who is going to have to be responsible for this.
PENNER: So maybe we don't need a superintendent. I mean, what do you think the school board might do? Might they say forget about a superintendent and we'll pick a principal as sort of an interim…
DONOHUE: Can they get a robot or something? Or…?
PENNER: Yeah, what do you think? Where should we go from here, Andrew?
DONOHUE: You know, I think – I think Tony's point is a very valid one. I think we focus so much on the structures and the teachers and the unions and the superintendents when so much of what's going to happen with our kids and with what they do in their success is really starting at home.
PENNER: Okay, thank you. Any scuttlebutt, any news, anything you can share with us about who the new superintendent might be, Tom York?
YORK: No, I can't – I'm not up to date on that.
PENNER: Oh, you aren't?
YORK: But I would say this, I think that, you know, the discussion here is such that if you look at the, you know, the San Diego school system, you see the unevenness of the achievement of the students. In the better neighborhoods, there's better achievement. In the poorer neighborhoods, there's lower achievement. And I think that's the intractable issue here that's going to face us for a long time.
PENNER: Well, in the better neighborhoods, the parents chip in and…
PENNER: …and they have foundations and there's more money and more equipment, and in the underserved neighborhoods, you don't have that either so money talks, too.
PENNER: Okay, well, let's move on.