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City Schools Superintendent Search Nearing End


Why did the San Diego Unified School District delay its announcement about the finalists to become the next superintendent? We speak to the president of the city school district about the district's search for a new superintendent.

The three final superintendent candidates will be invited to participate in a televised interview and presentation to the community at 6 p.m., Thursday, June 17, at the Auditorium of the Eugene Brucker Education Center on 4100 Normal Street. The meeting is open to the public.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego's largest school district has narrowed its search down to three. The San Diego Unified School Board is expected to reveal the names of its top three finalists for district superintendent later today. The trustees unexpectedly postponed the decision late Tuesday. KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis tells us why the board is taking an unconventional approach to choosing its next leader. I’d like to introduce my guest. Richard Barrera is president of the San Diego Unified School District's Board of Education. Good morning, Richard. Thank you for being here.

RICHARD BARRERA (President. San Diego Unified Board of Education): Good morning, Maureen. Thanks for having me on.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d also like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What do you think is the most important quality San Diego needs in a school superintendent? What do you think of this new selection process? Give us a call with your questions and your comments, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. We had some technical difficulties with that report from Ana Tintocalis so we’ll just have to go over it together.

BARRERA: Sure thing.

CAVANAUGH: I suppose you’re familiar with the process.

BARRERA: I’m familiar with technical difficulties, that’s for sure.

CAVANAUGH: Well, speaking of that…

BARRERA: Yes, yes. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …we did expect to have the names…


CAVANAUGH: …of those finalists released yesterday. What happened?

BARRERA: Well, we had a really great discussion after completing interviews yesterday afternoon and, you know, in the end, we thought this is an incredibly important decision even to name the finalists and we thought, you know, what would be best would be to sleep on it, come back, you know, make a final decision on the finalists tonight, and then report that out.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And so the names of the finalists, you’re expecting will be introduced to the public tonight.

BARRERA: Tonight, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Now is there anything you can tell us that won’t breach security in any way? Are the finalists from San Diego?

BARRERA: We’ve got – Well, first of all, we haven’t named – We haven’t decided on the finalists.


BARRERA: That’s why, you know…


BARRERA: So we haven’t quite made that decision yet. We’ve had strong applicants from within San Diego, from outside the region, people with very different experiences and backgrounds and what I hope we do when we introduce the finalists to the community at our forum tomorrow night—and, again, we’re having a community forum for people to meet the finalists tomorrow night at five o’clock at the school district headquarters, 4100 Normal Street. What I hope we’re able to do is bring forward finalists with different leadership styles and different backgrounds because we certainly have candidates, you know, that have, you know, different styles and backgrounds. And then the purpose of bringing, you know, these candidates out to the public is to get the public’s input. You know, let the public weigh in, let us know, you know, who, you know, which candidate but which type of leadership style seems to be the best fit for San Diego right now.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Richard Barrera. He’s president of the San Diego Unified School District’s Board of Education. And we’re talking about the selection, the search, for the new San Diego school superintendent. Now before we talk about how – what might happen after these names are selected and released, let’s talk about the process…


CAVANAUGH: …that led up to the naming or the choosing of these finalists. It was, as I’ve already said, an unconventional approach. It’s kind of from the bottom up…


CAVANAUGH: …except not the top down. Tell us about that.

BARRERA: Well, so first, in terms of the context, what has been the problem, the problem has been, you know, just way too much instability within the school district, so in the past 5 years, we’ve had 3 superintendents that have come and gone, two superintendents that stayed for 18 months, came in and left. And I think what has been happening is, you know, San Diego is a community where people care deeply about the public schools but people have very different ideas about what’s best for the public schools. And that’s democracy, and it’s alive and well in San Diego and it’s going to be. And I think that, you know, the last couple of times that the superintendent has been decided and announced, the public hasn’t known who that person is until they’re announced, and this is, you know, among the most important, you know, public positions in our community. So I think it’s very important – we know that, you know, the community is going to weigh in and have ideas and have opinions on who the superintendent should be and what the superintendent should do. Let’s get those, you know, opinions and ideas ahead of time rather than just put people in a position where they have to react.

CAVANAUGH: We do have that report from…


CAVANAUGH: …Ana Tintocalis now and it gives us a little bit more of a background on how this selection process actually took place.


CAVANAUGH: And we’ll also hear you in it, Richard Barrera, because she did speak with you in preparing this piece. So here’s KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis.

ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS Education Reporter): Dozens of parents file into the auditorium at Serra High School in Tierrasanta. They’re greeted by district officials and school board members. The topic for the evening, picking the district’s next superintendent.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: We’re facilitating a discussion that has as its agenda the selection of the very best superintendent for our district and so when we wander off from the point, you’ll try – see us trying to gently try to bring us back on point.

TINTOCALIS: This was one of five town hall meetings that will help the school board determine its three final candidates. This was the community’s chance to tell the district what kind of school leader San Diego needs.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Someone who is an advocate to what actually goes on in the classroom.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Not just intellectually but really emotionally and really morally invested.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: That superintendent’s got to be able to negotiate with every single person.

TINTOCALIS: This type of community involvement is unprecedented for San Diego Unified when it comes to picking a new superintendent. It’s also a departure from the way most school districts choose a leader. Typically, school districts hire a team of headhunters that recruit top administrators. The most desirable candidates tend to be successful superintendents working in other districts. That’s why the selection process is highly secretive. San Diego Unified used to go along with that process until now.

BARRERA: Whatever this district has done in the past decade has not worked.

TINTOCALIS: Richard Barrera is president of the San Diego Unified School Board. He pushed for making the selection process open and transparent. San Diego Unified has gone through 3 superintendents in the past 4 years. Barrera says part of the problem is reform-minded superintendents are like NFL coaches, there’s only a small pool of them in the country, they’re highly sought after and can move around based on the best job offer.

BARRERA: The critical concept, you know, that’s coming out of this is that the community owns the schools and we need a superintendent who’s going to be able to encourage and engage and work well with the community. We’re not looking for a savior.

TINTOCALIS: And that represents a fundamental shift in the way school districts are governed. Districts are expected to change based on the reforms and vision of a superintendent. Barrera says in San Diego Unified, the superintendent will now have to conform to the district. He says the new mission is to allow individual schools to guide their own reforms with a superintendent acting as a facilitator.

BARRERA: It’s not just change for change’s sake, it’s believing that democracy actually works and – and we’ll see. But, yeah, I’ll bank on democracy every time.

TINTOCALIS: That’s why the district is going to great lengths to involve the community. A district-appointed task force of parents, teachers and one student went through all the applications and made seven recommendations. Joseph Johnson is director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation in San Diego. He praises the district for taking a bold approach but he says there is a complicating factor; there may be a leadership change on the school board following the November general election. That’s four months after a new superintendent is picked.

JOSEPH JOHNSON (Director, National Center for Urban School Transformation): You have school board members who are looking for something different in a superintendent. Those kinds of shifts in what the board wants can greatly influence the volatility of superintendencies.

TINTOCALIS: Community members hope their voice and feedback will be used in making the final pick for superintendent. Some believe San Diego Unified’s new approach could help stop the revolving door of superintendent leadership. The big test comes Thursday when the three finalists are introduced to the community in a public job interview. Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m Maureen Cavanaugh, and I’m here with Richard Barrera. He’s president of the San Diego Unified School District's Board of Education. You just heard a clip from him in Ana’s report. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS if you have questions or comments about the selection of a new San Diego school superintendent. I have a couple of questions for you…


CAVANAUGH: …based on Ana’s report…


CAVANAUGH: …Richard. That last comment that we heard about the changing nature of the board itself, how do you think that might impact the – not the selection of the – but the tenure of the new school superintendent?

BARRERA: Yeah, I – Ana did an excellent report and I think the last comment is important. I think that if the process of selecting the superintendent is closed and it’s five people doing it behind closed doors, it’s enormously important who those five people are. And when some of those five people change, which, you know, is going to happen, you know, with election cycles, then you have a situation where new people come in and, hey, I didn’t pick you and, you know, and you start to have tension. It’s why this process needs to be owned by the entire community, you know, so if the community comes together like it has and, you know, what Ana, you know, documented in her report, we have five community forums in all the different parts of town to ask people the question first, what is it the kids need? And then second, therefore, what are the qualities that we need in a superintendent to ensure kids are getting what they need? I think we had some common themes emerge and one of those themes was, you know, we need a superintendent who understands that the – where kids learn is at school, not in the central office headquarters. And we need a superintendent who can be supportive of the great work that’s actually going on. Challenge where we need to do better but first understand what’s actually happening in the schools, and there is fantastic work, you know, that’s going on in our schools all throughout the city in the different parts of town so I think the community’s looking for somebody who’s a good listener, you know, who can come out and understand, you know, what’s working, and let’s build from within because despite the instability at the top that we’ve seen in our district both in terms of board members and superintendents over the last few years, what we’ve also seen is steady progress, you know, happening at the schools. And we’ve got to honor that and understand that that’s where, you know, the most important work is. So I think the community’s looking for somebody who can listen and support, you know, the very strong work that’s going on at the schools, and we need somebody who’s going to commit for the long term, you know, who’s going to be here in San Diego and see us through and is not, you know, looking to, you know, produce, you know, quick changes that, you know, you can put on your resume and then, you know, go off to the next spot. We need somebody who’s committed to our kids for the long term.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Melissa is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Melissa. Welcome to These Days.

MELISSA (Caller, San Diego): Hi, yes, thanks for taking my call. I’m a parent. I’ve been a parent in the school district for several years and through those processes of the different changes of the superintendents. Was very involved during the time of Dr. Cohn and then watched the process with Dr. Grier and though I very much appreciate the community access for this superintendent search and hoping for the best for that particular person and see the merit in that, I am a little concerned about how some of the other processes are – were characterized because for both of those, I attended forums to give input in terms of the next superintendent and the headhunters were well respected and highly qualified people in both the selection processes, Dr. Cohn as well as Dr. Grier, and the school board unanimously voted both of those superintendents in, and, in fact, they were very fine superintendents. So I appreciate that characterization and I do understand that we need community input and I appreciate that. I don’t want to miss the mark in the fact that we lost two really good superintendents.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Melissa, thank you for the phone call. One thing that I wanted to address, again, citing Ana’s report, and the fact that the – you’re looking to the schools themselves to come up with the best things, the best reforms, the best way to teach. So where does that leave the new school superintendent, though? How will this person be able to lead the district?

BARRERA: Well, you know, it’s interesting. We had a really important and, I think, exciting workshop with the board yesterday morning where the interim superintendent and the interim deputy superintendent for academics led us through a conversation on how do we actually define student achievement and how do we measure progress? And the way that student achievement is defined and the way progress is measured almost exclusively these days is how do kids do on standardized tests once a year. And if a certain percentage of those students do a little bit better than they did, you know, years before then a school district claims that it’s making progress. What we heard yesterday, what the staff did, is they went out actually and brought teachers into the process, brought principals into the process, particularly at schools where we are seeing a lot of progress, and what we heard from folks, you know, on the ground who are directly working with kids is, you know, they measure student achievement in a much different way. Their definition for student achievement is how well does a kid take ownership of their own learning, you know, how prepared is a kid, you know, in kindergarten, third grade, eighth grade, twelfth grade, how prepared are they going to be to go out into the world, which is going to be changing, you know, in ways that none of us can imagine, how prepared are they going to be to be confident that they can learn and adjust? And that’s what teachers work with with their kids, and they also understand that, you know, just as kids physically – you know, you could have a group of 9-year-olds who physically are all different, you know, sizes, well, kids also learn at different times in different ways and each kid is unique. And so when we start to define student achievement, we’re talking about, is each individual student gaining confidence and learning in a way that makes the most sense for them? And then we’ve got to, you know, hold ourselves accountable to that progress. Well, that process of engaging teachers and going to schools and understanding a really, you know, much, I think, more thoughtful definition of student achievement comes about when you have a district that wants to listen and wants to provide support. As opposed to, you know, a district that simply says we’ve got, you know, the key, the answer, you know, to improving test scores and we’re going to now go out and impose that, you know, all over the district.

CAVANAUGH: Is this new superintendent actually going to have the same kind of authority that other superintendents have had?

BARRERA: Sure. I mean, you know, and ultimate – We’re making no, you know, changes in a sense in a job description and removing or adding authority to the superintendent. We’re looking for a superintendent that understands how to engage the community, how to listen, how to pull resources together to support what’s actually going on in the classroom.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I can’t leave this discussion, I know that we want to round it out with telling people how they can actually meet the finalists for superintendent…

BARRERA: Yeah, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …tomorrow night but the fact that the city school district is facing a $59 million budget…


CAVANAUGH: …deficit for next year. I know that you have managed, the board has managed to close that gap almost totally.


CAVANAUGH: But tell us where you’re at with that.

BARRERA: Well, and this is the, you know, this is the, I think, critical issue that our community is, you know, understanding but that we need to come together as an entire community to take this on because we’ll close our budget gap, we’ll balance our budget for the next year, for the 10-11 year and it involves some sacrifice from everybody. What we’re really worried about is what happens the year after that. In the year 11-12 school year, that’s where our federal stimulus money runs out. If we continue to just – to even just receive the same amount of money that’s proposed for next year, our costs continue to go up, our healthcare costs and utility costs and everything else go up. We’re going to be in a position that we’re going to be facing $100, $130 million of additional cuts and we are absolutely at the bone right now. I mean, I think we’ve done as much as we can possibly do to keep those cuts away from the kids and away from the classrooms. That’s not going to be reality in 11-12 unless something changes. We have to demand different decisions from our legislators and the governor in Sacramento. They cannot continue to balance budgets by cutting education, and our community has to come together and send that message loud and clear. We’ve got a strong public school system in San Diego and it can be a great public school system but we’re going to devastate our public schools if, you know, this level of funding from Sacramento continues.

CAVANAUGH: Did the board manage to make this big $58 -$59 million cut without laying off teachers?

BARRERA: Yes, we did. For the second year in a row, we’ve been able to do this without laying off teachers, without cutting sixth grade camp, and without significantly increasing class size, without, you know, a lot of these – without cutting arts and music and sports. All of the things that make school worthwhile, we’ve been able to keep off the chopping block for now. We will not be able to continue to do that in the 11-12 year unless, you know, some of the funding from Sacramento for public schools is restored.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s close on the note of meeting the finalists.


CAVANAUGH: You’re pretty confident that you’re going to have some names?

BARRERA: Well, yeah. Yes, I am. I was pretty confident we would have that yesterday but, you know, it’s a tough decision and I think it was a smart move for the board to sleep on it and come back tonight.

CAVANAUGH: And actually announce names of finalists.

BARRERA: Yes, we will announce the names of the finalists tonight and then those finalists will come before the community at a forum tomorrow night at five o’clock at the school district headquarters.

CAVANAUGH: And what will be the public’s input in – as the selection process goes down to the one who’s chosen to be school superintendent?

BARRERA: So—good question—so after tomorrow night, the board – our game plan is to take about a week to ten days. We’ll probably do some follow-up interviews with the finalists. But during that time, we very much want to hear from the public and, you know, we’ll have an ability on our website,, sandi-dot-net, for people to go on and give comments. But we know, you know, that the public is great about, you know, being able to just contact us individually or e-mail or, you know, or phones. We’ll get input, you know, from people who really care about who we’re going to select but we want to take our time and hear that input before jumping into making the final decision.

CAVANAUGH: And I would imagine that people will be able to go to your website…


CAVANAUGH: …and read the resumes of…

BARRERA: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: …this selector – the people who are selected. And…

BARRERA: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: …also weigh in on it.

BARRERA: And weigh in on it. We will – we’ll telecast and webcast the community forum but then it’ll be on the website so that if people want to, you know, go and watch it after, you know, Thursday night, they’ll be able to do that as well.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Perhaps we can have you back after the selection is made.

BARRERA: Sounds good.


BARRERA: Maybe with a new or a permanent superintendent.

CAVANAUGH: That would – yes.


CAVANAUGH: Yes, we’d like to hear that. Richard Barrera is president of the San Diego Unified School District's Board of Education. Thanks so much.

BARRERA: Thank you. Thanks very much, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: If you’d like to comment, you can go online, Coming up, what the proposed expansion of Interstate 5 will mean for your commute. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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