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City Schools Superintendent Is A Familiar Name


Bill Kowba, acting superintendent, was chosen as the finalist to lead California's second-largest school district. We discuss the greatest challenge the district faces now.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): The San Diego Unified School District Board has had a rough time during the last couple of years, highlighted by shrinking budgets and revolving-door superintendents. So they decided to make the search for a new superintendent as public as possible and involve the community in their choice. Barbara, first of all, there was some grousing that the three candidates chosen for public interviews were not stars in the education field and that potential big name applicants wouldn’t apply because of the public process. How deserved is this criticism?

BARBARA BRY (Co-Publisher/Opinion Editor, I think not deserved in this case, although I think a lot of the reason is it’s outside the control of the local school board, the fact that the school budgets are shrinking so drastically, and I think that probably turned off a lot of potential applicants having to do a lot with very few resources.

PENNER: Well, there are those who say that the reason the applicants were turned off was because when you have their names go public and they’re still employed by another district, especially if they’re big name districts, that could be dangerous to their job.

BRY: Yeah, it can both be dangerous and helpful because it can also be a lever in terms of getting an increase in salary if, you know, a school district wants to retain them. So it kind of works both ways.

PENNER: All right, so anyway, the public became engaged, theoretically, at least that’s what the school board wanted and wanted to sort of spread, what, the credit and the blame when they selected someone. But just how engaged was the public in getting to know the candidates and with the decision making. Ricky?

RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Well, the public certainly had access but they’ve, you know, as Barbara was saying about the war, people have other things on their mind necessarily than who the superintendent is. So I don’t know how completely engaged they were in the process. I do think it’s good to have it be a public and open discussion and I think that what may have kept, you know, stars in the education field from applying for this job has less to do with the public process and more to do with the established order of the board in terms of taking a very strong hand and not giving the superintendent a lot of leeway. That’s what sent Terry Grier to Houston. And I think a lot of people in those echelons of the education world can see that they might suffer the same fate. So, you know, they went ahead and kept a guy who has a demonstrated ability to do as the board wants.

PENNER: And it is interesting because if you get a leader in the education field, they’re going to have their own ideas of how best to put together a school district to make the district achieve more. And, Tony, school board president Richard Barrera really made it clear that he didn’t want a, quote, reform-minded superintendent.

TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Sure, they kind of signaled that very, very loudly just a few weeks before they announced the three names by naming all these assistant superintendents who would have direct control over various schools. They kind of divided up the kingdom and then hired themselves an alleged king. Clearly, they didn’t want – Frankly, they didn’t want an Alan Bersin. Did that already. We tried the great man theory of education who came in with his own theories and brought his own people in and shook things up and thought he’d teach everyone how to read and write better than the fellows before him or women before him. Clearly, they didn’t want that. This is a board-run district. It happens. The water district, if you look at the long history, sometimes it’s a board-run district, sometimes it’s a general manager-run district. Well, schools, we’re now into the board era.

PENNER: Okay, well, let me just turn to our listeners on this. You heard what Tony said. It’s a board-run district. But two members of the board were up for election in the primary in June and neither one of them was reelected. One of them, Katherine Nakamura, is not even going to make it to the general election. Last I saw, she was about 300 points behind first – second place runner-up and so she’s not even in the running. And the other one, John de Beck, didn’t get more than 50% of the vote, so he’s going to have to go into the general election. Well, I set the stage. The stage is when you have a school board that is running a district and then you have your people living in the district not happy with the school board, what does this all say? Barbara.

BRY: Well, I mean, there’s a reason people aren’t happy with the schools and there’s less money to spend and, you know, it makes it hard to provide quality, you know, K-thru-12 education. What’s interesting, going back to Bersin, Bersin wanted to centralize everything. You know, he had his Blueprint for Success program, which sort of mandated things, you know, you know, throughout the whole district. And this school board is going the opposite way with decentralization and I think that at this moment in time that is probably the right thing to do. I think you’re going to need much more local involvement, parental involvement, community involvement, if you’re going to provide, you know, a quality education with, you know, fewer resources.

PENNER: So let me ask our listeners. That’s such a good – a good point. What is it that you do expect from Bill Kowba? Do you expect him to attempt to centralizing the power the way Alan Bersin did? Or go along with what appears to be set in place now which is more local control by the schools, by the superintendents? Our number – By the deputy superintendents. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Ricky.

YOUNG: I was just going to say, you know, with money problems being the central issue at the district right now, maybe it does make sense to take a guy who was – came up through the finance ranks and give him the job because that’s mainly the thing to facilitate the educators that you trust at other levels rather than having a, you know, a strong superintendent form of government that would allow that person to be calling the shots on the education realm. You get the guy at helm trying to make the finances work as best you can and then let the educators do the educating.

PENNER: Barbara.

BRY: Yeah, I think Ricky’s absolutely right. I mean, he’s been the CFO. He knows the numbers. He’s been here for 4 years. He knows the district. So he starts with a, you know, he has a head start on if you brought somebody in from out of town. And also, people like him. Now the teachers union likes him, parents appear to like him, administrators like him. I mean, that’s going to be very important in getting people to work collaboratively with fewer resources. He is going to get to pick a deputy superintendent and odds are that will be somebody who has a strong education background which Kowba doesn’t have. And, you know, it’s – you know, he’s been the CFO and you don’t expect your CFO to have a vision about education. It’s, you know, he could have one, we just don’t know what it is.

PERRY: What he has, of course, is 30 years experience in the Navy in the supply and infrastructure side. He wasn’t the ship driver. He didn’t stand at the helm of a battleship or something but he held those jobs that make a large organization with a lot of moving parts together, keep it together. Now the question is, how do you translate those skills. You know, there is a bit of a history of retired military officers getting high level education jobs. Look at Los Angeles, David Brewer, also retired Navy. Didn’t work a bit. Now maybe because his board was looking for Brewer to be more of a leader and not a manager. This board seems to look at Kowba and say we got ourselves a manager that’ll keep the trains running on time, we’ll decide where those trains go. We’ll see if that works. As we said in the last segment about what difference does it make who the general is, I’m not sure when you get down to that classroom, when Mrs. Smith closes that door and tries to teach those third graders how to read, it really makes a difference who’s sitting in that chair at the Education Center.

PENNER: So are you saying, Tony, that it’s not necessary to have a visionary who has some background in learning and teaching?

PERRY: It can work. It can be a bust. It doesn’t all come in one size. We’ve tried the visionary stuff and it also led to incredible rancor towards the teachers and the teachers union, and I think we learned from that. There was a strike under Bertha Pendleton and then, of course, there was all that friction under Alan Bersin. I thought it was interesting that one of the three candidates, who had been shown the door at his two previous jobs, he apparently left such a bad taste in the teachers union up in Hayward they actually issued a statement during the interview process down here talking trash about him. So I think if he had a chance—and I don’t think he did, I think this was a set-up. I think the board wanted Kowba from day one. They had to bring down a woman and they had to bring down a career educator and kind of make it look real. But I think if he had any chance, it died when the teachers union up in Hayward let loose with that blast.

PENNER: Okay, well, we’ll return to this and we’ll take your phone calls. Are you pleased with the selection of the new superintendent of schools? What is it that you want the superintendent to do with the San Diego schools K-thru-12? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. I’m Gloria Penner.

PENNER: I’m Gloria Penner. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m at the roundtable today with Ricky Young of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Tony Perry from the Los Angeles Times and from Barbara Bry. We’re talking about the new chosen superintendent. He’s still in the process of negotiating his contract. He hasn’t said yes, yes, I’ll take it. At least we don’t think he has. So we’re going to – we’re going to wait until we call him the new superintendent. And we have a couple more minutes on this subject, so let’s hear from Stephen in San Diego. Stephen, you’re on with the editors.

STEPHEN (Caller, San Diego): Hello, Barbara, thank you.

PENNER: I’m Gloria. I’m Gloria.

STEPHEN: I’m sorry, Gloria.

BRY: We’ll settle it.

STEPHEN: I’m calling because I’m concerned about the longterm educational implications of hiring basically a numbers person. Just what is going to happen to the education of all of the students and, more particularly, the large diverse population of students? Thank you.

PENNER: Very good question. Barbara Bry, what about the diversity aspect?

BRY: Well, you know, first of all, you know, we all have said, you know, Kowba is a numbers person but I think he know – I think he’s a smart guy who knows what he’s good at and knows what he’s not good at. He is going to hire a deputy superintendent. The odds are that person will have a strong education background. He has, you know, area district superintendents who are in place who have strong education backgrounds. I don’t think everybody has to have a strong education background for the school district to be successful.

PENNER: Well, one thing that really got in the way of at least Alan Bersin, I don’t know about Terry Grier and Carl Cohn, was a disunity with the very powerful teachers association. And, Ricky, do we have a sense that the union is reacting positively to this choice?

YOUNG: I think more so than previous superintendents and probably more so than if the other choices had been made in this case.

PENNER: Okay, so with that I’m just going to finally ask is a period of stability what the board wants right now? Is that the overall feeling that you have, Ricky?

YOUNG: I think it was a big criteria. I don’t think it was the overall decision making factor but it was certainly a big factor, that they wanted someone who was committed to the area and Kowba certainly looked that way. So…

PENNER: Well, we’ll be watching him, as you know. And I want to thank Stephen very much for his call. Let’s move on.

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