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City Schools CFO Resigns During Budget Overhaul

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Aired 4/15/10

What caused the San Diego Unified School District's Chief Financial Officer, James Masias, to resign? We speak to KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis about the factors that might have led to his departure from the district. And, we discuss the challenges the district will face as it searches for a new superintendent and CFO.

SAN DIEGO UNIFIED

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego's largest school district is losing another high-ranking administrator. While San Diego Unified continues to search for a new school superintendent, the district's chief financial officer has handed in his resignation. James Masias will be leaving the district at the end of June. District officials have not released a reason why CFO Masias is stepping down, although stress has been mentioned as a factor in the resignation. Joining us to talk about this newest vacancy in the administration at San Diego Unified is KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis. Good morning, Ana.

ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS Education Reporter): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: First of all, if you would, give us an idea of the main duties of the schools’ chief financial officer.

TINTOCALIS: Right, well, as you can imagine, the CFO is in a very important position at a business, same thing with a public school district and even more so because you’re dealing with taxpayer money, taxpayer dollars. So this person oversees a $1.2 billion operating budget for San Diego Unified. That means each and every year, they have to make sure the budget is balanced, so that’s their kind of key priority. And that budget includes everything that it takes to make learning get done in each and every classroom each and every day. So that might be teacher salaries, obviously, programs, supplies, everything that it takes to run a school. And on top of that, this person has to deal with—and increasingly so—folks from Sacramento. As budget reports come down from Sacramento, they’ve increasingly had to interface with folks in the capital. And his office also has to oversee other time-consuming services like transportation and maintenance. And so there’s a lot on a CFO’s plate at a public school district like San Diego Unified.

CAVANAUGH: Ana, when did James Masias – when was his resignation announced?

TINTOCALIS: It was announced about – well, we got reports that he was put on paid administrative leave about two weeks ago, and that was very unexpected and we were all kind of scratching our heads. We reporters were kind of scratching our heads. And so that’s when speculation started to spread, you know, was he doing a bad job? Did the school board have issues with him? And that was quelled. Those questions were settled when San Diego Unified School Board President Richard Barrera did go on record to say that he was ruling out that this was a result of Masias’ financial analysis as the CFO or the credibility of his numbers. He also ruled out that this had anything to do with Masias’ performance as the CFO. But he did hint around that Masias’ office and he, himself, had been under intense pressure over the past couple of years because of the deep budget cuts that the district was – is experiencing. So that’s why many people believe this might have to do with just the stress of dealing with what is happening in Sacramento. Because when you really look at it, these are numbers but these are lives, literal lives, that are being impacted, you know, and this – whatever might happen with the budget might very well shape the future of a young person, so it – there’s big – there’s a big burden that comes with the job.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, School Board President Richard Barrera, did he say that there was too much stress on the staff?

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, I mean, he admitted that there’s tremendous pressure and part of that pressure is not only you’re dealing with how to balance the budget but the school board demands, especially this year. They requested that let’s overhaul the budgeting process, let’s start from scratch, let’s stop doing what we have done in the past, and let’s build the budget from scratch. And that took a lot of legwork and a lot of heavy lifting in addition to everything, the changing news reports coming from the governor’s office. So that added intense pressure. But School Board Barrera (sic) doesn’t apologize for that. He says, you know, because we were able to overhaul the budgeting process, we found ways to cut where there wasn’t places that were identified before. So this is what School Board President Richard Barrera had to say about how – the new approach to dealing with budgets in the district.

RICHARD BARRERA (President, San Diego Unified School District Board of Education): The reality is that if we hadn’t taken that stress on here, we would’ve made the easy decisions which would’ve simply impacted what’s happening in the schools. And then that kind of stress would have been, you know, felt directly in the schools and directly by our kids and so it was unavoidable.

TINTOCALIS: And so there you have Barrera saying, you know, we know that there’s a lot of, you know, a lot of people are dealing with stress in different ways but we have to do this, otherwise we’re not going to make smart decisions. And I also talked with the interim school superintendent William Kowba about this because Mr. Kowba had been in charge of district finances before Masias and so he understands the craziness that can go along with being in that type of a pressure cooker situation. And so he gave me a little bit of insight of what Masias probably has been feeling over the past year.

WILLIAM KOWBA (Interim Superintendent, San Diego Unified School District): And it can be mentally and physically fatiguing and demanding and not on just one individual but the entire fiscal team and, beyond that, as you saw this year with our teaming for the priority based budgeting, the pressures are spread to the cabinet, to the support staff because we’re pushing at every level to bring collaboration up and getting people thinking. And they’re seeing firsthand that it is very hard and getting only harder with time because of all the options that have been used up already.

TINTOCALIS: And so that has translated into very long workdays, very long weekends, 36-hour plus weekend nights trying to deal with all this stuff, and a school board that says, well, this financial analysis is not good enough. Go back and redo it or rescrub the numbers. And so it’s a tough job.

CAVANAUGH: Now I understand that James Masias will still be on the payroll for a while but he will not be in the role – acting in the role of chief financial officer, is that right?

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, and we still have to kind of dig a little bit about what that’s all about because he is placed on – he won’t resign until the end of June. He’s charged with being – heading up special projects and those special projects haven’t been identified or really communicated to the media. So we’re not exactly sure what he’s doing other than he’s just not in the central office anymore.

CAVANAUGH: And just to be clear, you have heard, round about, from some people that there’s a lot of stress involved in this job but we haven’t heard from Mr. Masias as to why he’s leaving the post.

TINTOCALIS: Right. That’s right. He has not come forth to offer any explanations, neither has anyone from his office. Again, this is a personnel issue and in the public school district world, when someone leaves or is terminated, it’s very – it’s a very closed case. You can’t really find out much about it until they come forward, which maybe he might once he’s officially resigned at the end of June.

CAVANAUGH: So what kind of challenges does this create for the school board now? They’re in the process of overhauling this budget, I mean, they were going to remake the budget from scratch, and of course they are searching for a new superintendent. But let me just focus on the board on this question. So now they have another task that they have to handle.

TINTOCALIS: Yeah. And it’s huge. I mean, you have these two huge public school district positions that are essentially kind of still vacant. I mean, you do have an interim school superintendent in place but it’s not a permanent superintendent, so they’re having to look for that very key position. And now you have a CFO who has huge responsibilities who’s no longer there. It’s – These are people that you just can’t find on the street. You know, they’re – it takes special skills, it’s very nuanced, there’s a lot of responsibility and so they’re having to go out, put ads out there for now a new CFO and ads out there for a new superintendent. And I think there’s a public perception that, you know, what’s going on at San Diego Unified once again? Why can’t they hold on to their top ranking administrators and, to be frank, you know, when I do go to the central office, because of a lot of the cuts, that office is – has been really gutted and so I don’t know if that builds confidence or not but there’s not a sense really that there’s a strong public face for the district just yet. I mean, the school board members certainly have been but it’ll be interesting in moving forward what kind of talent they can recruit based on everything that has happened.

CAVANAUGH: And the budget process itself, is that process nearing completion? I mean, now that the chief financial officer is gone, that might – one might think that would hinder the process, so how far along are they in that?

TINTOCALIS: Well, yeah, I mean, this is a critical juncture right now. We’re in April and they have to get things done by June. School district officials tell me that a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of overhauling the budget took place earlier in the year and so they have a really solid team in place that can take on a lot of the responsibilities left behind by Masias. But there’s no doubt that there’s still a lot of cutting to be done, a lot of collaboration to be done and when you don’t have a CFO kind of running those things, a strong personality running those things, you know, things might not flow as well as they should and that’s not good when you’re having to face state mandated deadlines.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I think anybody could see that the San Diego Unified School Board didn’t need this right now.

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: How is the search for the school superintendent going?

TINTOCALIS: Well, it’s actually – it’s moving along and they – the district put together a community task force, if you will, the Superintendent Search Committee, made up of community members who are going through the application (sic) and they have started a town hall meeting forum kind of circuit. And I think this week was the second town hall meeting and it’s a chance for community members to come together and say this is what we want for our – this is the kind of leader we want for the district, this is the type of superintendent we want. And the last of the town hall meetings will take place at the end of this month. So based on those responses, the task force will then kind of figure out, okay, well, let’s look at the candidates and which candidates do we want, and then they’ll give their final seven picks to the school board which will whittle those down.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. Do we have any idea on the kind of qualities that they’re hearing that should be encapsulated in the new superintendent? I mean, what are these community task forces saying?

TINTOCALIS: Well, I think I’ll get a better sense toward the end of the whole – the town hall forum circuit. But I think one of the key issues is stability and…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

TINTOCALIS: …and a commitment to the community.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

TINTOCALIS: A real commitment. And that’s hard to measure, right. That’s not something that you can kind of put down on paper. So it really has to do with the personality but the personality might not have all the credentials. You know what I mean? So it’s a difficult balance but that’s the one thing that I’m really hearing, is someone who is committed to San Diego Unified and will stay here for the long haul. Pretty basic but that’s what folks want.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Ana, is the search for the new chief financial officer, have you heard, is it going to go on at the same time that they are looking for a superintendent?

TINTOCALIS: Absolutely. And these things might dovetail, and it’s interesting because if they – It’s a tricky thing because if they bring in a new CFO who doesn’t necessarily like the new superintendent that comes on board a little bit later, that could cause some problems because the new superintendent could want to bring in his own CFO, so that could cause more leadership changes. But I – Basically, what the school board is telling me is that they’re putting out the job description for a new CFO immediately and they’re hoping to start – They want to fill that position as soon as possible but they do also want to put a superintendent in place by July. So, again, these things might all come together nicely or they might not come together very nicely at all so we’ll see what happens.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, do you get the sense, Ana, that anyone at San Diego Unified is concerned about the picture that this is giving to the larger public about how things are going in the administration of this school district?

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, I mean, I talked to some folks who just kind of roll their eyes at this point when you talk about leadership changes at San Diego Unified, and they say, oh, well, here it goes again, you know. And that’s – that doesn’t bode a lot of – it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. The school board and the district wants to do a lot this coming year. One thing that they’ve put out there is this idea of a parcel tax to bring in more money directly to the schools. And one of the issues is, you know, a parcel tax is successful if there’s a lot of confidence among the people in that city that they trust the administration of a public school district to spend it wisely, that there have been people there for a long time to steer the ship appropriately, and when you have perceptional problems like that, when there’s been a lot of leadership changes, I think that will definitely impact not only parcel tax initiatives but, you know, other ideas when it comes to school reform.

CAVANAUGH: Ana, thanks so much.

TINTOCALIS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis. If you’d like to comment, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Now coming up, we’ll hear why First Lady Michelle Obama is in town today as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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