Tuesday, February 22, 2005 | The challenge before the new school board is to find an outstanding superintendent. The person is out there waiting for the call.

But it is not clear the phone will ring. Board member Shelia Jackson and board president Luis Acle want to delay the superintendent search for a year. Their plan is to hire an interim superintendent while the board seeks to meld together its vision for improving schools.

This is not a good idea. An interim superintendent is a caretaker, who notwithstanding a flurry of words about pursuing excellence and all other good things, marks time until the real superintendent is hired. Principals and teachers will continue to do their jobs but their focus will be on getting through the year while wondering who will be their next boss.

Jackson said she wants the board to set its collective vision before undertaking “the most important thing we do.” Acle contends that “every available candidate will already be in the final stages of interviews (with other districts) and we won’t get anyone good.” He agrees with Jackson in thinking that the board, without a superintendent, can produce policy directions that set the district on a post-Bersin course of action. Both are wrong.

San Diego, given its manageable size, student population and technological culture, is the most promising urban district in the nation in terms of building schools capable of achieving universal proficiency (the nation’s performance goal). This is the great unmet challenge facing every school and superintendent. Consequently, a number of young, promising superintendents already have their eye on the job. Even among the nation’s best and most experienced superintendents, there are those waiting for the search to begin. This city can attract an outstanding superintendent capable of healing divides and building a school-based strategy for increasing student performance.

But some members of the board may want something else. The new majority has already gone beyond policy making into operational decision making. They reassigned a school principal, a responsibility that should reside exclusively with the superintendent. Do you suppose Acle and Jackson naively presume they can run the district? This course of action will not work. Board majorities, even if closely aligned, are not capable of being superintendents. They can muddle through a year and a half trying to do it but the district will suffer dearly.

Superintendents make a profound difference. They generate the district’s esprit de corps and, in doing this, mold school leadership, morale, vigor, and determine the attractiveness of San Diego to young, promising teachers and principals. Without a superintendent who does this, the organization will wither.

Delaying the selection of a superintendent is, for the children, an unconscionable act.

Les Birdsall has been involved in federal, state and local (district and school) improvement initiatives for 40 years. He has written about school reform for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion section.

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