Photo by Sam Hodgson
Bill Kowba exhales after being announced as the sole finalist for superintendent.
Bill Kowba is something of an accidental superintendent. He has no long line of school districts to point to. He has never taught a class. The former Navy man was reluctant at first to throw his hat in the ring.
But after twice being tapped as the interim superintendent of San Diego Unified, after the departures of Carl Cohn and Terry Grier, Kowba was praised over and over for his steady hand and honest leadership. For a school district that seems shell-shocked by the revolving door of three superintendents in five years and a barrage of budget cuts, Kowba has been reassuring and trusted.
“Here is a guy who has been in the seat a couple of times and keeps coming back when others have fled,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, who recommended Kowba for the job for his even keel. “He strikes me as a keeper.”
He was so well-liked that the school district struggled to convince other would-be-superintendents that Kowba wasn’t guaranteed to get the job, even extending the deadline to get more candidates. Employees and outsiders pegged him as the man to beat. No one seemed surprised when he got the gig.
Now Kowba is the sole finalist to lead the second largest school district in California, virtually guaranteeing him the job. He isn’t officially the superintendent because the school board must first negotiate a contract with him, the district said Tuesday. Kowba beat out a veteran superintendent and a nonprofit leader for the job after an unusually open superintendent search that aired the top three finalists’ names.
The school board voted 4 to 0 to choose him, with Shelia Jackson abstaining from the vote. It is a remarkable turn of events for a man who, nine months ago, said he would never have imagined being here.
Kowba smiled demurely and folded his hands when his name was announced to a cheering audience and a standing ovation. One principal sighed with relief when Kowba was named.
“I’m not a yeller and a screamer,” Kowba said last week of his leadership style. “I’m someone who recognizes that we have a job to do and I cannot do it by myself.”
But while Kowba is known and liked, he also embodies the risk that San Diego Unified is taking as it tries to decentralize school reform, letting each school seek its own path. Critics fear that by choosing Kowba, the school district is opting for a manager instead of a visionary, more of the same instead of change.
“My big concern is, where is the vision for the district?” asked Paula Cordeiro, dean of an education leadership school at the University of San Diego. “I don’t know what San Diego Unified is about right now.”
Kowba is chiefly a business expert. He joined San Diego Unified as its finance chief four years ago after a long career in the Navy and later oversaw its logistics and special projects offices. He has a MBA from the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles and went to a Dartmouth College management program. His budget savvy has been an asset as the school district weathers year after year of budget cuts.
Yet Kowba has never been an educator and openly admits that instruction is not his strong suit. That shortcoming has already been a problem: Earlier this year in a public evaluation, the school board criticized Kowba for paying too little attention to learning during the budget crunch.
Board members believe that could be fixed by pairing Kowba with a strong deputy superintendent who would handle curriculum and teaching. Superintendents who are not educators aren’t unheard of: The Council of Great City Schools estimates that one-fifth of big city superintendents come from other fields.
But even some of his fans fear that with Kowba at the helm, instructional reform is in danger of being sidelined or slowed. Their worries dovetail with the new direction for the district. Under any leader, the big risk of decentralizing school reform is that some schools will flounder without help from the top.
“Things will be stable. Nobody doesn’t like him,” said Wendell Bass, president of the local Association of African American Educators and a fan of Kowba. “But what is the educational program going to be? How is he going to accelerate the achievement of our students?”
Kowba is not expected to overturn the school district in the hunt for reform. His quieter style is in line with what Board President Richard Barrera has described as the “community model” of school reform, in which each school plans its reforms from the grassroots instead of getting orders from the top. His strengths are in bringing people together to solve problems, not devising the solution on his own.
Omar Passons saw Kowba in action when North Parkers raised concerns about a high school for students with discipline problems moving into their neighborhood. Passons said Kowba deftly juggled the needs of community members, kids and the school district to ensure that everyone was heard.
“He is the type of pragmatic guy who says, ‘This needs to get done, but I also really care about what I’m doing,’” said Passons, who leads the North Park Community Association’s board.
The teachers union has praised him for his honesty. Principals feel comfortable with him. He has already led San Diego Unified since September and the longer he has stayed at the top, the more natural he seems. Some parents urged the school board to skip the search entirely and just pick Kowba.
“He has the ability to really listen,” said Cindy McIntyre, vice president of leadership for the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs. “He can be cool under fire.”
But others worry that Kowba won’t be able to stand up to the school board, which has a bad rap for micromanaging its superintendents. For instance, he shied away from saying what the school board should do when it was grappling with whether to lay off teachers. If Kowba is praised for listening, he is criticized for listening a little too much to the board.
“He’s been hired because the board needs somebody that understands them and accommodates them,” said school board member John de Beck. “Whether he can lead the board is something we have to see.”
Correction: This story briefly had an incorrect number for the number of years Kowba has been with the school district. It has been updated. We regret the error.
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