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Superintendent Finalist Has Strengths, Weaknesses

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Aired 6/23/10

The San Diego Unified Board of Education tapped Bill Kowba to be the district's next school superintendent. The trustees made the announcement during their meeting on Tuesday. Their decision came sooner than expected.

— San Diego Unified's school board meeting began like it always does, with a public disclosure of decisions made behind closed doors.

Bill Kowba
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Above: Bill Kowba

However, at this week's meeting, school board president Richard Barrera had a big announcement.

The trustees picked Bill Kowba to be the “sole finalist” for the permanent superintendent position.

Kowba has been the district's interim superintendent for about a year.

The announcement comes just five days after he and two other finalists took part in a public job interview.

A final decision wasn't expected until the end of this month.

Even so, the audience at yesterday's school board meeting stood-up to congratulate Kowba.

“I am certainly honored and pleased,” Kowba said. “I certainly look forward to doing all I can to continue my faith, loyalty, and support to this district.”

Trustees say it is Kowba's commitment and his understanding of San Diego Unified that made him shine above the rest.

He beat out two other finalists: Debbra Lindo, a longtime educator, and Dale Vigil, a former school superintendent. Both are from Northern California.

Some parents and teachers say Kowba was a shoe-in for the job because he's been with the district for several years. He is the district's former chief financial officer.

Kowba is a talented budget analyst, known for his honesty and accessibility. He's also a former Navy admiral.

Trustee Katherine Nakamura says he is the best man for the job.

“I think we made the right choice considering the totality of all their backgrounds and the experience,” Nakamura said.

But other teachers and parents disagree. They say Kowba's weakness is that he knows more about crunching numbers than leading instruction. They say he lacks the academic vision that will move the district forward.

Some say he lacks the charisma of the district's former superintendents -- Terry Grier, Carl Cohn and Alan Bersin.

Critics say the board could have done a better job at recruiting top talent.

But the trustees stand by their decision, saying the school board is not looking for a big personality or school reformer.

They also say a team of academic leaders are already in place to begin the work of getting more students to achieve.

Trustee John Evans downplayed any rumors that the board made up its mind a long time ago.

“There are five independent-minded people on the board,” Evans said. “These decisions are not taken lightly or reached easily.”

Kowba would not be the first superintendent in San Diego without an academic background. Bersin, the district's most infamous superintendent, was an attorney.

Supporters say San Diego Unified needs a budget-minded leader right now. The district has suffered more than $300 million in state budget cuts over the past few years. The district is looking at another big deficit for next school year.

Jeannie Steeg represents San Diego school administrators. She says Kowba will bring the stability the district desperately needs, and he won't be pushed around by the school board.

“He is his own person,” Steeg said. “He has too much integrity to be a ‘yes’ person as some people believe.”

Kowba and the trustees say they need to hammer out a contract before the hiring process can be finalized. Those contract negotiations are expected to be a formality.

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