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Monday, October 03, 2005 | Leslie Fausset is home. The former interim superintendent for San Diego City Schools takes the reins today as superintendent of the Solana Beach School District, capping what many consider to be a remarkably illustrious career in public education.
A resident of the city of Solana Beach for the past 30 years, Fausset said she is excited and proud to assume her new position. “I’m very much looking forward to it,” she said in a recent interview.
What it was like working under Alan [Bersin]? He has a reputation by many as being very dictatorial, and others think he walks on water.
Alan is brilliant. He does believe in the work and he does believe in children, and he is particularly passionate about support for disenfranchised children. He had a way of doing business and it was characterized as being very dictatorial. I’ve found that I could share anything with him. I could discuss anything with him. I could debate with him. And yet he made the decisions. So I found him open to discussion, open to dialogue, receptive to input. But clearly the decisions were his decisions.
Did you learn anything working for him? You have such a broad, wide range of experience. Was there anything in particular that he offered you that you feel perhaps helped you grow?
I’ve often told him the greatest gift he gave me was, with his legal mind and his legal background, when he looks at law and he looks at code, he looks at it with a very different eye. He looks with a discerning, questioning eye. I think I, and the average person would read something and say, this is the law. And he taught me to look a little deeper and to look a little closer and to ask questions. I think that’s a great gift I’ll carry with me, probably forever.
What about his policies? How did your philosophies mesh with his? I don’t know if he was exactly anti-union, but there was certainly antagonism there.
There definitely was antagonism there, and that antagonism I think had been built over a number of years. I forged, I think, a very open and a very supportive relationship with all of the bargaining units, so I do not carry that same past and that same history. I believe that we worked very well together and the feedback I had with him was extremely positive. And I think we were open and collaborative. But I think there was a lot of history that was specific to him, that I wasn’t a part of.
How do you think you came out unscathed? There is really no one who has an unkind thing to say about you. You are very well-liked. How did you do that?
My last two challenging jobs have been very big jobs – chief deputy at the state and deputy here. People have said, it’s amazing – you have your reputation intact. I just know that I believe in the work. I’m honest. I care about people. And I think somehow people know that. When I make decisions, I try to be very thoughtful. I have learned over time that if I make them too quickly, I might make the wrong decision.
So even in a big organization, I try to bring the right people together to shape and form how we’re going to attack a problem or how we’re going to approach a problem. And I think it’s that willingness to be open. I think I’m an excellent listener; I will take the time to hear people. I believe I’m able to communicate that I am an absolute partner in this work, and that we are about this work together as a team and need to always stay focused on our job, which is the children.
Don’t you get frustrated sometimes by policies or red tape or things that tie your hands and keep you from achieving your goals?
Well, there’s always frustration because there are always things that can confine you. I was raised in a culture where kids were always at the center of every decision that you made. And you had to do whatever it takes in order to make things happen for children. I think that when you’re high enough in an organization, you actually have less bureaucracy and less red tape because, frankly, you can cut through it.
I think Alan Bersin would say one of his greatest frustrations has been the teachers union and some of their post-and-bid and seniority rules. Those are hard to cut through.
I think we have a lot of work to do there. I think what needs to happen is that it needs to be collaborative work. The big issue that he’s referencing is specifically in our hardest to teach, our lowest-performing schools where we don’t have stable staff. We don’t have stable staff for a host of reasons, but we need to come together and solve that problem. I believe it can be solved together. If not, then you have to reach the decision of how can you overcome it. And one way of overcoming it obviously is charters. But I think there will be other options and other opportunities. This is hard decision-making work. The right people have to be in the room together, focused on solving the right problems.
And you feel that the teachers union leadership in San Diego City Schools is willing to perhaps offer more flexibility on those kinds of issues?
I certainly think they will be willing to come to the table, certainly with the new superintendent, to begin conversations about what are the obstacles and what are the issues we have to deal with. I don’t know how that will progress. I don’t know that there is an easy solution to this. But I do believe that they understand many of the constraining factors. Post-and-bid is one factor but it’s not the only factor. So what needs to happen is that we need to come together and look at the range of issues that happen in these schools and then how are we together going to tackle it and overcome those obstacles.
It becomes cyclical. You can’t maintain stable staff so you don’t maintain stable leadership. Without stable staff and stable leadership, you can’t create the right culture. Without creating the right culture that has stabilizing factors that has parents engaged and involved in the school, all of it crumbles around a number of issues. It’s chicken and egg – where do you start? But the discussion needs to happen. This is the reality and we have to find a way to come together to overcome that reality.
Something Vince Riveroll [director of Gompers Charter Middle School] has said to me is that hiring his own staff has made all the difference in the world. I don’t believe the teachers union here was wholeheartedly in favor of the Gompers charter. How do you feel about Gompers, and how do you feel about his comment? Is that the central issue with those low-performing schools?
The Gompers charter journey was a really interesting one to experience. This is a school that has been a troubled school for decades – not one or two years, not three or four years, but for decades. So something substantive needed to happen there. The effort of engaging parents in the decision-making and parents looking at the multiple issues that contribute to a school not being successful, and again the willingness of parents to participate in writing their own charter, creating their own dream, creating their own vision, is extraordinarily powerful.
I have great hope for the school, for the children. Having UCSD as a partner, having a Preuss model as a very successful model to look to for guidance and for direction, I think that all of the component pieces are in the right place.
Principals will tell you when they can pick their own staff, that is desirable. Teachers will tell you when they can pick their own principals, that is desirable. So somehow you have to find a way to mesh powerful leadership and powerful teachers, all focused number one on students.
The dynamic tension there is that we have an accountability system now unlike any we’ve ever had in my 32 years in education. While the system could be improved no question, and has flaws no question, it’s forcing us and our attention on the right goal, which is student achievement. We’ve had decades of happy teachers and happy principals, but children who haven’t reached their potential.
So you have a very dynamic system right now where we have internal and external pressures … We have pressure on us unlike we’ve ever had before, and we must respond to that pressure. Sometimes that means we have to do things differently and that’s difficult for all of us.
I want to ask you about STAR and the Public Schools Accountability Act. You were working at the state – you were right there at the genesis of all this. I’m looking at the costs and what it takes to run the STAR program. It’s a pretty large number. Is it really worth it?
Also, one of the key ingredients of the Public Schools Accountability Act was to have a simple, clear system. I can’t find anybody who understands this system thoroughly any more. It’s layer upon layer upon layer of regulations now. What was the original intent? Has it strayed from the original intent? Can it be done in a simpler manner?
The original intent in 1998 – and [former state Senator] Dede Alpert wrote the original accountability legislation – was to create a system whereby we could identify areas that we needed to focus on and reward areas where we were more successful. If you read the original legislation, there were rewards and there were sanctions … But embedded in that was increased flexibility both for the higher-achieving schools as well as the lower-achieving schools. Then it all became operational.
When you look at any testing of students, testing is one of the most complex, complicated work that we do. It is highly, highly controversial in the sense of its complexity. And to be able to communicate a score, a student’s score to a parent, you have to be able to show that score relative to other scores and relative to the progress the student met before and where you expect the student to go after. It’s just a point in time. It gives you only one piece of the complicated puzzle.
And it’s the same when you look at norm-referenced, standardized tests. In the aggregate, altogether, it can give you some really good benchmarking information that can be extremely helpful. But to communicate to the public exactly what that score means is extremely complicated.
The state system was developed and actually operated alone for a couple of years, and then we now have a federal system that looks at different factors, that has different requirements. And sorting through those two systems is impossible to mine through. It’s impossible for educators to mine through, let alone the general public. I know what they’re working on now is to try to create a convergence of the systems so there will be one system that people can generally understand, for California.
The question that you ask about the resource issue and is it worth it, I think there’s opportunity and already some of the testing has been minimized. We don’t give the standardized test at every grade level any longer. We only give it at a couple of grade levels. I think as we work into the system, I think there will be opportunities … to maybe test every other year instead of every year. Maybe benchmark at certain grade levels for certain subjects. So I think there might be some opportunity for minimizing costs at some point in the future.
As I said, it’s done what it was intended to do. It has forced attention and forced resources on our children who haven’t been successful.
It’s certainly forced testing resources. And that was the original intent? A lot of money and effort is going into the tests.
There are some ways you could gain some cost savings. We’re still pretty much in the beginning stages of accountability, relatively speaking. I think it will get simpler. One of the things we haven’t had that are being developed over time are good data systems. The whole technology is relatively new for all of us. And we haven’t had good systems where we’ve been able to draw information to make good decisions. I think as systems get developed, I really do think there will be opportunity for less, not more.
Is this what you envisioned when you were working with Delaine Eastin? Is this what you foresaw six to eight years in the future?
Let me be clear that we were the implementers – we were not the designers. So I have to give credit to the governor and the legislature, because they actually were the designers of the department. What I didn’t envision obviously, in the beginning work, was that we would have almost a conflicting federal system. And frankly had that been anticipated, one could argue that perhaps one should have delayed in an effort to have one system.
If you look at the district scores and at the state scores, what you will see is a steady, consistent improvement over time. That tells me that what we are doing is the right work, because we are getting incremental improvement and it’s very consistent. At some point you would think it would flatten out, but it hasn’t done that yet. And that tells me that the system is strengthening.
Because when you look at strengthening the system, it means that parents have to be more involved and more aware in supporting their children. It means that teachers have to have greater familiarity with standards and expectations. It means that we have to have the supports there for children who aren’t successful.
What we need to realize is that we’re on a journey that should never end. We’re on a journey of improvement that we will need to do for the rest of my life and potentially forever in order to make sure that all children have opportunity.
You may be making progress, but you still had less than 50 percent who are proficient. [San Diego City Schools executive director for standards, assessment and accountability] Karen Bachofer says it is possible to have 100 percent of students proficient at the standards. Is that really true? Do you really think everybody can be above standards? She says yes, because it’s not average – it’s standards.
That’s right, that’s the difference. It’s not a bell-shaped curve. I think we have to always remember that the proficiency [level] is very rigorous. We argued at one point that perhaps the state should consider for the short term allowing the Basic level [a level lower than the level of Proficient on state standardized tests] to be the test, because the system hadn’t been ratcheted up sufficiently.
Karen’s statement that all students can get there I believe is accurate. There are some children who may not for disabled reasons. But it’s a bar that … all children should be able to jump over if they’re getting the right support all the way through. But it’s not going to happen overnight. Frankly, we have groups of children who have never been successful ever in our education system. But if you look at the demands of the 21st century and beyond, our students are simply going to have to leave with a greater level of sophistication than ever before.
Did you want the job [as superintendent of San Diego City Schools]?
Oh no, I did not. I think that Carl [Cohn] is an inspired choice. I have told the board individually and collectively that they should be proud that they were able to do their work in the timeframe that they established, which was extremely short, and proud of the choice, because he is perfect for the next step.
When Alan asked me to come in and to serve in the number two position, I actually tried to negotiate with him a one-year contract because I said, ‘If I send an indication I’m here for more than a year, I will be sending the message that I’m looking to be heir apparent and I’m not. I want to be real clear about that.’ And I was very clear about that entering the district, that that was not my goal.
Why not? Why number two?
I didn’t feel I could do a good job as number two if I wanted to be number one. It’s a different job. And I wanted to be very clear with everyone that I was not going to make decisions because I wanted the next job and I wasn’t going to campaign for the next job, that I had a job to do and I’m here to do that job. And I think that’s a really important message to send.
I actually question whether I could have done the interim superintendent job that I’ve done the last couple of months had I wanted to be a candidate. So when the board and I entered into discussions, I said I want to be very clear – I will not be a candidate for this position. Not that I don’t love it here, and not that I haven’t grown extremely fond of the people with whom I work. But it was the best professional decision for me, to do the job I had to do.
Do have any advice or what would you say to Carl Cohn coming in?
It’s a big organization. And it’s filled with complexity and filled with challenge. My only recommendation is to continue to stay focused on getting the right systems in place. I would be looking at system work and coordinating those systems across the district. It’s a system that’s gone through a lot of change in a short period of time.
They had an early retirement just two years ago, and hundreds of people took advantage of that opportunity. So you have a relatively new organization in many, many ways. And while there’s a culture here, it’s really an emerging culture. It’s a real opportunity.
I care deeply about the place and the children and the families and the people. That’s part of the reason I’m not spending more time north [in Solana Beach], because I want to make sure this goes as smoothly as possible. I will do anything I can to make this [transition] as easy as possible.
What about the board? You’ve worked with both boards, the old board and the new board. Is this a good board to work with?
I think [Carl Cohn] will find them very engaged, very interested. They’re very passionate. They will say this about themselves. They are independent, sometimes strong-willed. You have five very independent people sitting at the table. They sometimes disagree and that’s absolutely appropriate … They are well-intentioned people who care about kids. And you can do anything if you have the right focus. I like them individually, and I think they’ve done a good job collectively, particularly with the selection of the superintendent.
Is there a learning curve? There are three new board members.
Absolutely. There’s a lot to learn. And they know that and they realize that. Public education is not simple.
What are you taking away that you can bring to Solana Beach? They are very different worlds.
They are very different worlds, but you know I’ve spent 25 years in the Poway district which as a district is more like a Solana Beach than a large urban district.
I think what I have gained here is certainly a greater appreciation of how difficult the work is in a place like this, and I think that will help me in terms of perspective. And I come away with an appreciation for what Solana Beach has.
Will it be a walk in the park?
I don’t think it’s ever a walk in the park. The work is always challenging. People have said things to me like, it’s going to be a half-time job and it’s going to be so much easier. The easier part is going to be that I come with extensive education background. I know issues and I know education, but what I don’t have in Solana Beach and didn’t have here is understanding the local context and understanding the local issues.
The easier part, just because it’s smaller, will obviously be to know people. It will be easier for me to get names to faces and even know parents and students. The easier part will be to have time to spend time in schools, which is my favorite part of my day that I don’t get to do enough of now that I will have the opportunity to do there. And then because it’s smaller, it will be easier to understand all of the pieces, which I’ve already started working on.
What are the challenges that they have in Solana Beach?
They have many of the challenges that any educational institution has. They don’t have 100 percent of their students achieving on standards. That works needs to continue. It needs to continue with a focus. They have powerful parent involvement and engagement, so continuing to build that and continuing to use that resource in the most effective and efficient way [is important. I think the opportunity is just to find a way to continue the good work and refine it in an appropriate way to keep the performance climbing.
What would you do if you had the power to change public education?
One thing would be along the lines of compliance. What happens is that laws get passed, programs get implemented, compliance gets initiated. But it happens specific from program to program to program, and then all that builds up over time so you end up with an extensive compliance and monitoring system both from the federal level and the state level.
There ought to be some way that there could be some mechanism or vehicle to streamline funding and monitoring as well, so that more time can be spent on learning and teaching and less time on meeting whatever requirements have come down based on whatever legislation has been passed. If there’s one thing I could do, it would be to try to find a way to make that happen on a regular basis.
I think another piece of that is – and I think we’ll get better at this – we’ll become much more results oriented. And when we become more results oriented, we’ll become more focused on the end game and less focused on how you get there. And that will build in some of the flexibility that people are talking about.
What I’m really looking at is making sure people know what the target is and can hit the target. I think that will evolve over time and then what will happen will be some of this flexibility will happen on the natural. It may take some legislative push to make that happen. But I think we’ll get there. Again, I just really believe we’re in the beginning stages of this work.
How do you feel about the governor’s initiative to increase [the time it takes for teachers to reach] tenure from two years to five years, and how do you feel about incentive pay?
I haven’t really read the initiative yet [but] … in general, I think giving people more time isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I think alongside that we do need a much better induction system. We know that we lose many teachers after just a couple of years, so we need to build in the right supports to keep people in the profession and that might need to be a partner to that change in [tenure] time.
I support incentive pay. We need to incentivize for people who are willing to work in the hardest to teach areas – they ought to make more money.
Some say the reason you lose teachers is because they are assigned with hardly any experience or support networks into those low-performing schools.
And what needs to happen is that if they are assigned there that they have the right support. The beginning teacher support assistance program has been very successful, and there’s documentation that we have kept people in the profession longer. I think that’s key.
I remember my first year of teaching. If I hadn’t had a next-door teacher and a team of teachers, I don’t know if I would have stayed. It’s really, really hard work. And it’s hard because it takes almost a year to really feel comfortable … And you’re struggling with just the day-to-day operations with something even as simple as taking roll which is unfamiliar to you. And so you’re juggling a lot of new work and not knowing where you want to end up at the end of the year. The supports are really critical, and there are fabulous programs out there that have done a phenomenal job.
What will you miss the most?
It’s always about the people. It’s the people who make an organization. I’m convinced you can do any hard job if you have the right people around you.
What will you miss the least? Besides the commute.
I’ve already calculated [that my drive takes] 30 minutes down, 30 minutes back, and I always came in at least once on the weekends. So that’s six hours I’d have in my life…
Besides the commute, I think what I won’t miss is the feeling that I can’t address everything as readily as I need to, just because of the demands of the work, the size, and you only have so many hours in a day. Having something that I can get my arms around and know everything about will be personally reassuring and professionally reassuring to me.
Do you have a particular success story that you are most proud of?
We had a very successful opening day, and it took the hard work of a lot of people … I don’t take personal credit for that though. I give credit to the team of people who came together.
So many memories. My work is about team-building and working with others. The successes that come to mind that I take with me are with teams of people who came together to do the work for all the right reasons, for kids.
Where would you like to be in five to 10 years?
Well, Solana Beach is not a stepping stone for me. I think I will be one of those people who will always work. At some point it might just be work on my own time. Before I was called about Solana Beach, I was exploring consulting positions, and there were a number of foundations who contacted me and were interested in hiring me to work with districts. And I would guess that perhaps the next step for me would be doing some of that work. I think I will always be involved in the [education] work.
Did you see yourself here at this place when you started out?
My professional life has been such an odd sequence of serendipity. I didn’t envision any of this. I was a very happy teacher. I’m one of the most fortunate people in the world, because I have loved every job I’ve had and I haven’t left any job I’ve had because I didn’t like it. I’ve left because there was a new opportunity for me.
Maybe in Solana Beach, since it’s such a small school district, you’ll be able to teach in the classroom once again.
Wouldn’t that be fun? I always said I would do that. When I met with the [Solana Beach school] board, I told them, I always said I would end my career as an elementary school principal. And they said, you’re about as close as you can get here.
Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at