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Challenging Year Ahead For Local School Districts

Audio

Aired 9/11/09

The new school year began for many San Diego County schools this week. How will the San Diego Unified School District move ahead without a superintendent in place?

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Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: KPBS spoke with California's Superintendent of Education about budget cuts and classroom size. Local editors from San Diego offer differing opinions on where education is going and the bottom line on education funding.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): And, by the way, I really want to remind our listeners that if you have comments and we don't get to you on the telephone, we would love to have you post your comment on our website, that's KPBS.org/EditorsRoundtable. And we will certainly read them, believe me. We read everything. Okay, San Diego Unified School children, the teachers, the administrators, and the school board began the new school week on Tuesday. Two days later, its superintendent resigned. Ahead is the prospect of a new school superintendent, crowded classrooms, fewer supplies, and lots of new teachers to replace those who took early retirement. So that, what do we have, 130,000 students in San Diego Unified? Let's start with yesterday's announcement that Terry Grier is going to Houston. He's going to Houston. He's going to be paid, oh, at least $35,000 to $50,000 maybe $100,000 more than here in San Diego. I'm hearing figures that range up to $400,000 a year. He gets what, a hundred and…

DAVID OGUL (Education Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): He gets $269,000 base salary in San Diego. He'll get a base salary of about $300,000 in Houston with incentives possibly to bring that up to about $400,000.

PENNER: So, David, is that the reason that he's leaving?

OGUL: No.

PENNER: What's – why is he leaving?

OGUL: Well, again, it's difficult to…

PENNER: Not money?

OGUL: It's difficult to put your mind in what other people are thinking and so forgive me, Dr. Grier, if you're listening but it clearly was not a good fit with Dr. Grier in San Diego. I think, well, when – before he came here, many of his friends and closest advisors told him he should not come to the San Diego Unified School District. And he saw it as a challenge. It is the second largest school district in the state. He had been a nationally recognized leader elsewhere, in Tennessee and in North Carolina for a number of years, and he felt – he thought he could handle it. But there are some differences in California, not the least of which is the strength of the unions and, really, the San Diego Educators Association, Teachers Association, is really one of the stronger unions, more effective unions, teacher unions, in the state.

PENNER: So does that make it tough for any superintendent? I think it does.

OGUL: Absolutely. It absolutely makes it tougher for any superintendent. But that's not the only challenge that the next superintendent will face. We've, in San Diego Unified, in the last 18 months, have cut – Dr. Grier had to start his tenure here early. He was supposed to start in June; he came in in March of – a couple of years ago. In that time, $250 million in spending cuts in San Diego Unified in the past 18 months. Bus routes have been cancelled. Larger class sizes, thousands of teachers – well, not thousands. Countywide, thousands of teachers have been laid off. In San Diego Unified, just this past year, in June, 1,000 employees were – took the early retirement package. It's a huge challenge. It's not going to go away. And, to me, that is the really – the most difficult thing any superintendent is going to have, not – again, not just the union that they're going to have to deal with but the school board. A lot of people call the school board dysfunctional.

PENNER: Okay, but this is all about the children, John. This is about the children. So, as David said, 1,000 teachers, principals, other school employees took early retirement. Is this a good thing for the kids to have all those people with some institutional memory, a lot of experience, leave a district? Or is it good that it makes space for new teachers and new administrators?

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well, people always say everything is for the kids and that's really dishonest because the kids are only mentioned when it's convenient, like raising the flag or apple pie. The reality of school districts is that 80% of what they deal with in terms of costs for a school district goes toward the staffing of people who are there. And in any scenario where you have senior people, they cost more than a host of junior people. So for one senior teacher, you might be able to have that person retire and hire two junior teachers, which helps the scenario that we have here. But Grier was in a scenario where you had the school district on the operating table, blood transfusions and medical staff needed to keep it alive not available, and a prognosis of, from his standpoint, of, you know, certain death. So why stay here and fight the system in a state that's bankrupt when you can go to a state where you can have all the support, a school district that loves you, people who are going to pay you more. So he leaves. San Diego Unified will not collapse because he's gone. Today, they will appoint an interim – There are capable people in this school district who can run it. The district does not evolve around one individual. If anything, he's sort of like an airplane that can fly on automatic pilot but you put a live person there just to make the passengers feel good. So they – The system is in place. It will continue to make the reductions and changes as has been stated. I hope they don't waste a lot of money looking for a new person external to the system when there are people here who can do the job.

PENNER: Let's hear what Ed in Golden Hill has to say. I think he wants to talk about the idea of a new superintendent, and then we'll go to you, JW. Ed, you're on with the editors.

ED (Caller, Golden Hill): And good morning. I agree with John but I – The nationwide search for a new superintendent is not necessary. It's going to take a tough negotiator who has the respect of the teachers and by virtue of their own experience can set high standards and expect results, and they have to have integrity and ability to communicate with – to the parents, teachers, students and the entire taxpaying community. And I think, if we can have a drumroll, no one is better at bringing all sides together on any issue than former State Senator Dede Alpert. I think – and I'll leave it at that. I think everybody knows her here and I'll leave that suggestion out to you and your listeners.

PENNER: That's a very interesting suggestion. I assume what Ed is saying is that maybe we should look to a former politician.

J.W. AUGUST (Managing Editor, 10News): Isn't Ed Dede's uncle? Was that her uncle?

PENNER: All right, JW. Okay.

AUGUST: No, but that's – I mean, of course, why not a politician?

PENNER: Why not a politician?

AUGUST: Yeah.

PENNER: Yeah.

AUGUST: They've learned to work…

PENNER: Well, she…

AUGUST: …with many different elements and having diverse people and come to a common goal

PENNER: I think she comes out of a school board background. I think that's how she got started in politics. But I want to go back to what David was saying, JW, and ask you to comment on that. He's basically saying it's really tough for anybody having to deal with the teachers union.

AUGUST: Oh, I have to agree with it. I mean, that's an issue anybody coming in there is going to have to deal with. They're very powerful. They have a strong voice in what goes on. They have a lot to do with the makeup of the current board. They're the movers and shakers. This person's going to have to be able to deal with those folks.

PENNER: So do you – We now have a board that's three-to-two on most things. There are five members of the board. They usually vote three on one side, two on the other. The three that vote together generally are considered sort of pro…

PENNER/AUGUST: …union…

AUGUST: …right.

PENNER: So, I mean, reasonably aren't you going to have to get a superintendent that can deal with this?

AUGUST: Oh, absolutely. They're going to have to deal with the board and with the union itself. Somebody – And I like the idea of somebody from within the ranks that understands the playing field, who the players are, who they have to deal with. It makes sense. Don't go out and blow, you know, two or three, four hundred thousand dollars looking at somebody nationally. We've got a lot of good homegrown talent here.

PENNER: David, any comment on that?

OGUL: Well, I have – they're supposed to – the school board this afternoon is scheduled to announce their interim superintendent. My money's on Chuck Morris, who is the assistant superintendent, was brought over here by Dr. Grier. Whether he'll be a permanent choice is another matter.

PENNER: Okay, well, we've sort of diverted from what I originally was going to talk about on this program. It has to do with the schools getting so much less money and how that's affecting the schools and I – I don't want this program to end without that. Schools are getting 25% less for classroom supplies this year. Will that make fundraising, private fundraising, the bake sales, the barbeques, the auctions, all that, more important than ever to individual schools?

OGUL: Absolutely. And one of the unfortunate fallouts from that is that you have schools typically referred to – commonly referred to as north of the 8, your La Jolla High Schools, your Scripps Ranch High Schools, etcetera, which parents are involved, and God bless them, and – but also come from better socioeconomic status in which it's easier to raise – to contribute and raise – And whereas you have schools such as Encanto Elementary School or Logan Elementary School where, you know, these children and teachers are striving just as hard as – and have more challenges, in many respects, as these schools from the better areas and they don't have that ability to raise money and you end up with an inequity.

PENNER: And yet their performance is judged against the performance of the north of the 8 schools or one of the…

OGUL: That's one of the criticisms of No Child Left Behind.

PENNER: Okay. John, last comments.

WARREN: Well, you know, I was a school board member in another life and a member of the board of the National School Boards Association for many years so I've seen education around the country. And what we have happening here has happened before and it is cyclical. We will continue to have reductions, we'll have expanded class sizes, we'll come in and try to make changes, and we'll go back and forth. The key to survival of a public education system is to have the parents get involved with the kind of love and passion that will help the students achieve in spite of the economic imbalances in the system.

PENNER: Even if they…

WARREN: And that we can't buy.

PENNER: I was going to say, even if they run three jobs each.

WARREN: Yes.

PENNER: That's kind of rough. Go ahead, last comment, please, JW.

AUGUST: Amen to what John said. It's all about the parents. They have to get involved. They make a difference in their children's lives.

PENNER: Okay, well, thank you very much. I want to thank JW August from KGTV 10News, and John Warren from San Diego Voice and Viewpoint, and David Ogul in his debut performance on Editors Roundtable from the Union-Tribune. And I want to thank you, our callers and our listeners. Excuse me. What I would also like to do is remind you that you can leave your comment at KPBS.org/EditorsRoundtable. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner.

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