Anxiety in the Air as Grier Eyes Another Job

Anxiety in the Air as Grier Eyes Another Job

San Diego Unified Superintendent Terry Grier assumes his spot on the dais before a school board meeting. Photo: Sam Hodgson

Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009 | It looks like the revolving door at San Diego Unified may keep spinning, to the horror of parents and employees who thought it might have finally slowed.

Less than a year and a half after Superintendent Terry Grier took over the second largest school district in the state, the school chief is talking to the Houston Independent School District about a new job as its superintendent. And though Grier was long rumored to be shopping for another superintendency, it didn’t dull the shock that the assertive reformer with a Southern accent could be leaving so soon.

“I’m at a loss for words,” said school board member Katherine Nakamura, a staunch supporter. “I think it’s a black eye for San Diego. We can’t keep a superintendent for longer than 18 months.”

The Houston Chronicle broke the news Wednesday morning that Grier was the frontrunner for the Houston gig. A growing chorus of union leaders and school board members echoed the headlines as the day wore on. Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston teachers union, called it a done deal. School board members in San Diego assumed that he would take the job and began eulogizing his tenure.

Grier did not return calls or e-mails Wednesday. School district spokesman Bernie Rhinerson said the superintendent had not been offered a job and could not confirm whether he was a finalist.

The Chronicle obtained a draft employment agreement between Grier and the Texas district that offers him a heftier salary with bonuses. And that isn’t its only lure. Houston is larger than San Diego Unified and is already using test scores to reward teachers, a favored approach for Grier that has fallen on deaf ears in San Diego.

It is no surprise that his eyes would wander: Grier has clashed repeatedly with the school board since a new, labor-backed majority was elected in November. The superintendent is a regular punching bag for the teachers union, whose leader once called him the No. 1 problem in San Diego Unified, arguing that he sparked conflict and tried to force reforms from the top. It launched a petition criticizing an “environment of fear, hostility and divisiveness” and unrolled it loudly before the school board.

Grier complained that he was being micromanaged by the school board, which has overruled him on everything from how to spend stimulus dollars to how to handle the budget crisis. Trustee John Lee Evans recently pushed to reorganize the employees who oversee principals, spurring Grier to gripe that he wasn’t being allowed to run the school district the way he wanted.

“Who wants to work with a school board that’s going to do his job for him?” asked David Page, the parent leader of a committee on disadvantaged students. “I’m not really surprised that he’d throw up his hands and say, ‘I’m working with knuckleheads!’”

Grier has been diplomatic about both the school board and the teachers union, even as the union has grown more and more harshly critical of his leadership. “You’ve not heard me say some of the things about them that you’ve heard them say about me. Nor do I think you will,” he said early in his tenure. But the superintendent has become frustrated with the debates in San Diego, lamenting they don’t really have anything to do with children’s needs.

“We ought to have people standing up at our school board meetings saying, ‘Our dropout rate is unacceptable,’” Grier said earlier this month in an interview. “But we don’t. Instead we go to school board meetings and we fuss and complain about adult issues.”

Parents, employees and experts fretted that if Grier does leave, the school system will be thrown into turmoil once again (he is the district’s third superintendent in four years), just as it needs a steady hand.

Budget cuts are likely to menace schools again. Veteran employees are already pouring out of the school district thanks to a golden handshake.

As the news trickled through the pink stucco offices of San Diego Unified, clerical workers and middle managers gasped and muttered. “Here we go again,” one said, looking at the Houston Chronicle website.

“This churning has to stop,” said Scott Himelstein, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego. “What is wrong here? Why do we continue to have a fractured district?”

The last superintendent, Carl Cohn, stayed only two years and his predecessor, Alan Bersin, proved so divisive that his name is still invoked angrily by unions and parents years later. Even one of the school board members who often sided against him, Richard Barrera, has argued that keeping Grier is best for the school district, which has already undergone enough turnover. New superintendents often hire new managers and reorganize the school district, undercutting its stability.

“This completely disrupts everything we’re doing,” said school board member John de Beck. “We’re right back to square one.”

Even the way that the news unfolded underscored the deep rift in the school system. Under his contract, Grier is supposed to inform the school board once he is a finalist for another job. Nakamura said Grier had told her months ago that Houston was talking to him about a possible job and called her again Wednesday to tell her more about his prospects. De Beck said Grier told him Wednesday afternoon that he hadn’t applied for the Houston job, but was being considered a candidate and might have made it into the top three contenders.

But school board President Shelia Jackson said Grier told her he had nothing to say when she called him on Wednesday morning to ask about the headlines. And when the executive director of the principals union, Jeannie Steeg, e-mailed Grier to ask if the news were true, he sidestepped the question. “Rumor,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I have not been offered the job in Houston.”

It echoed his comments to voiceofsandiego.org less than a month ago when asked whether he had interviewed for a job in Houston. “Give me a break,” he said. Spokesman Rhinerson insisted that it was still too early to talk about, even after the news broke on Wednesday. “It’s not news yet,” he said.

The Chronicle reported that Houston Independent School District’s draft agreement envisions paying Grier more than $300,000 annually along with a $46,000 annual retirement payment and a performance bonus of up to $80,000. He now earns $269,000. The Houston district is substantially larger than San Diego Unified, with more than 200,000 students compared to roughly 130,000 here. It has a larger percentage of impoverished students and has a student body that is more heavily Hispanic and African American than San Diego.

“He is one of the most progressive, visionary superintendents in the country,” said Matt Spathas, a parent who sits on the construction bond oversight committee. “It would not surprise me that districts would be courting him heavily.”

If Grier ultimately leaves, it will pave the way for the new school board majority to pick a superintendent who is more sympathetic to labor. Yet Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union, said that Grier exiting would neither be a victory nor a blow for her members.

“It’s too easy to say the union won,” she said. “He made his choice.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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