Monday, July 23, 2007 | Since late fall 2005, José Betancourt has overseen the operations of the San Diego Unified School District, steering the second-largest school system in the state as Superintendent Carl Cohn’s chief administrator. On Monday, the school board will decide whether he will continue doing so.

Though Cohn has closely guarded his power to direct the school district’s personnel, accusing the board in recent months of micromanaging, the superintendent has indicated that he will allow the elected trustees to make the hard decision of whether the district’s chief administrative officer should retain his job in the face of a legal controversy.

A Demanding Boss

  • The Issue: The board of the San Diego Unified School District will decide the fate of the system’s chief administrative officer, who pleaded guilty this month to violating federal laws for work he did outside of the district.
  • What It Means: José Betancourt has won praise for improving relations with the district’s labor unions and has overseen an overhaul of its maintenance and operations arm even as he’s made a reputation as a tough and demanding boss.
  • The Bigger Picture: With passionate supporters and vocal critics, there is little consensus about whether Betancourt has made the school system better off than how he found it.

Earlier this month, Betancourt, San Diego’s former “Navy mayor,” pleaded guilty to violating federal conflict-of-interest law for his work on an unsuccessful bid to secure a $300 million military contract for a defense firm. School district leaders must now decide whether the ethical shadow cast by the criminal investigation, and Betancourt’s failure to report the work to the district, are serious enough to warrant his ouster.

Yet, as interviews with former and current district officials show, Betancourt began to chart a contentious course at the district long before the present controversy began. Since arriving in November 2005, the district’s chief administrative officer has embarked on a complete reorganization of the school system’s $131 million-per-year maintenance and operations arm and has won much praise from the district’s labor leaders for reaching out to blue-collar workers. However, Betancourt’s 20-month tenure in San Diego has also been marked by an exodus of several long-time top district administrators, some of whom have been replaced by people with little or no experience in the world of education.

Betancourt’s relationship with his staff, those who have worked with him said, has been tainted by his own ambitions to become a superintendent and his management style has frozen the elected trustees out of many of the decisions over the district’s operations.

His critics and supporters alike agree on two things: That Betancourt has never faltered in his commitment to the educational mission of San Diego’s schools; and that the retired admiral has proven to be a demanding boss for the district’s 17,000-person operation, with high expectations and an eye for details. What they disagree on is whether Betancourt has made the district better off than how he found it.

On several occasions, Betancourt has declined requests to answer questions about the flap over his criminal plea or his work for the district. Stopped outside the district central office last week, he again said he would not discuss either topic ahead of the board meeting. He said, though, that he has done his best to steer the ship of a school system that educates 130,000 students.

The Anti-Bersin

Betancourt’s job was created as part of Cohn’s reorganization of the district administration when he arrived in 2005. Taking a more hands-off approach than his predecessor, Alan Bersin, Cohn ceded much of the responsibilities for the day-to-day control of the district bureaucracy and operations to the chief administrative officer, who oversees the school system’s facilities, its business units and its procurement, among other responsibilities.

When local education observers compare the management of the district under Superintendent Cohn with the administration of Bersin, in many ways they’re really comparing Betancourt to Bersin. Much of the praise Betancourt receives, and the criticism, has centered on his differences from Bersin’s divisive administration.

Under Bersin, for example, the district laid off more than two-thirds of its landscapers as the school system moved to dramatically cut its budget five years ago to address declining student enrollment. The superintendent and the school board decided that, with limited resources, the district should put its money in educating students, not in maintaining the physical presence of individual schools.

But when Betancourt arrived, cleaning up the schools and increasing their curb-appeal became a top priority. For ideas on how to get this done, Betancourt turned to the district’s custodians instead of their managers, who Bersin critics said were given free reign by the former superintendent.

Larry Isom, the president of the union that represents custodians and other blue-collar workers, said Betancourt opened his ears to the workers on the ground, something Bersin had never done.

“He turned to a custodian at Clairemont High School and said, ‘How do you clean up gum on the sidewalk?’” Isom said. “The bottom line is, that was a shift for us, where he actually turned to the people who were doing the work.”

While Bersin’s brash style had earned him a toxic reputation among the district’s unions, Betancourt opened his door to labor leaders and invited them to the table.

“When we started with him, we had been abused and felt a hostile relationship with the district for quite some time,” Isom said. Betancourt “stepped into that relationship and spent hours, and hours, and hours listening to us. That was a big step for us, to feel like, all of the sudden, we were getting heard.”

It was the supervisors, though, who were held accountable for getting things done. The district’s former director of maintenance and operations, Bill Dos Santos, said the new chief administrative officer had come from a military world of bottomless budgets and brought with him unrealistic expectations.

Betancourt was very sympathetic to the concerns of parents about the physical state of their children’s schools, and was unsatisfied when Dos Santos told him the district was doing all it could, given its resources, Dos Santos said.

“When José arrived, he was about the parents. He was very much about the parents,” Dos Santos said. “And it frustrated him to no end that school sites were looking shabby. I very properly, very professionally informed him that we went from 125 landscapers to 30-odd. He couldn’t accept the situation as it was, that we didn’t have the manpower.”

Unwilling to concede defeat, Betancourt pushed for better maintenance of the district’s schools and grounds. When Dos Santos pushed back, he was laid off in March as part of Betancourt’s overhaul of the district’s maintenance and facilities operations.

The Portolan Reorganization

To both critics and supporters, Betancourt’s plans to reorganize the district’s maintenance arm has been the centerpiece of his 20 months on the job.

Convinced by the district’s custodians that the school system was not making the best use of its resources, Betancourt received the school board’s go ahead to pay $200,000 to consultants to probe the district’s facilities and maintenance department.

In a report released earlier this year, consultants from the Portolan Group concluded that the district was not getting its bang for the buck for the $131 million — 12 percent of the total budget — it spent on maintenance. The report also said that managers at the district had too much discretion over hiring and firing decisions and had soured the district’s relationships with its custodians.

After the report came out, the school board approved paying $150,000 to the Portolan Group to implement its recommended reorganization of the facilities and maintenance department. The consultants recommended that the district combine all of its maintenance work into a single budget to be overseen by an operations czar, provide additional training to custodial managers, beef up its landscaping staff and standardize its protocol for hiring and promotions.

Dos Santos was a vocal critic of the report, and made his concerns known to the superintendent and the district.

“His desire to make schools better, absolutely, that’s a commendable thing,” Dos Santos said. “My issue is that he then did not back that by reality. And the reality was budgetary realities, and resource realities.”

Dos Santos and another former district official said Betancourt had moved forward with his plans with little or no consultation with the people who headed the maintenance department. Dos Santos said he was fired for speaking out.

But Isom, the union chief, said it was Dos Santos who failed at communication.

“We tried for years to work with Mr. Dos Santos. We were pretty much stonewalled by him,” Isom said. “To be honest with you, the reason he was let go by the district is that he stopped coming to the collaborative meetings. He said he had other things to do.”

Though some supervisors in the district had doubts about the Portolan reorganization, those still at the district say it has been largely effective.

“The reorganization has put us on the right path,” said Tim Edwards, a district custodial operations supervisor and president of the Administrators Association. “The outcome is very positive for us.”

As part of the reorganization, the district has hired more landscapers and school board member Katherine Nakamura has praised Betancourt for the improving look of the schools.

“My own personal opinion is that, periodically, in large organizations like ours, reorganizations do occur,” said Jim Watts, the chief of architecture for the district. “There can be pluses and minuses to them, but inevitably, some things get better.”

Superintendent Dreams

A current student at the Broad Superintendents Academy, Betancourt makes no secret of his intention to one day become a superintendent, though he says his focus now is on running San Diego’s school system.

But his critics, most of whom have left the district, suspect Betancourt made his decisions at the district with the future job in mind. They said Betancourt moved to reform things that weren’t broken in the first place.

Though, as the chief administrator of the school system’s operations, Betancourt’s job was to work primarily with other district employees, the admiral’s ambition created an atmosphere of distrust among some workers worried that he was pushing an agenda of self-promotion.

“José’s agenda is not to be the second man, his agenda is to be the main man,” Dos Santos said. “There is nothing wrong with someone having ambition, if that ambition is couched in professionalism, caring, and everything that is ethical and proper. In my opinion, the man is not ethical.”

School board member, John de Beck, an outspoken Betancourt critic who has called on him to resign over his guilty plea in the criminal case, said that, though more efficiencies could be squeezed from the maintenance department, he was never convinced the Portolan Group’s work was worthwhile.

“To me, it looks very much like the main issue for Betancourt was that he needed something to be proud of,” de Beck said. “I don’t see it as a shining example of leadership.”

One of the officials who left over disillusionment with Betancourt is Bob Kiesling, who headed the district’s Proposition MM construction program.

“It was no secret that I didn’t see eye to eye with his management style and was therefore looking for an opportunity to leave,” said Kiesling, now the executive director of facilities management at the neighboring Grossmont Union High School District.

Kiesling’s replacement at San Diego Unified, David Umstot, left the district earlier this month for a job at San Diego’s community colleges.

A long-time district employee and the first financial chief under Betancourt, Scott Patterson, also left the district for Grossmont. In an interview, Patterson said he had not considered leaving San Diego, but that Grossmont made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

His replacement, William Kowba, is a retired Navy admiral with no previous education experience. Betancourt said Kowba is “a brilliant chief financial officer.”

In de Beck’s eyes, the departures have left the district’s operations arm with a giant vacuum of institutional memory.

“It’s a huge coincidence that all of the people in that department are gone,” de Beck said. “And I don’t believe in coincidences very much.”

J.M. Tarvin, a retired La Jolla High School principal and former head of the district’s Administrators Association, said Cohn should have picked a top administrator that was familiar with the district’s history and traditions. A retired superintendent from Long Beach, who was teaching at University of Southern California when San Diego offered him the job, Cohn himself had little knowledge of the city’s school system before he arrived.

“They weren’t here when the trip started, and they certainly don’t have a map,” Tarvin said. “A problem with this whole administration is a lack of institutional memory. There is no one who knows anything about the school district.”

But Betancourt’s supporters, including school board President Luis Acle, said he represents the future of the district and that those who have left during the rear admiral’s tenure did so because they remained wed to the past and unwilling to support Betancourt’s vision for continual improvement.

“The district needs to get used to the fact that we had a team that had different skills, and those skills were probably useful for those times. But we have turned a corner, an important corner,” Acle said.

‘A Wordsmith’

Philip Stover, the president of the Portolan Group, remembered that when the consultants finished the first draft of their report on the district’s maintenance department, Betancourt chose to edit it himself.

“He is a wordsmith, I will say that,” Stover said. “If I used the wrong punctuation or grammar, he certainly did change those things.”

He said Betancourt also personally added a paragraph into the introduction of the report thanking the district for the “wonderful cooperation received in this effort from District management, staff and labor” because he thought it began too bluntly.” But he said Betancourt did not make any substantive changes to the document.

Dos Santos said he believes Betancourt purposefully made the final report sound harsher than the one submitted by Stover, to justify his reorganization plan. It’s a charge Stover said is untrue.

“He did not alter — no one altered, not just him — my recommendations or tried to get me to say this or not say that,” Stover said.

If Betancourt did make substantive changes to the document, those who’ve worked with him said, it would not the first time Betancourt has kept firm control over their work. The admiral has earned a reputation as a tough manager — a micromanager to some — and current and former employees said he has consolidated his control over the bureaucracy at the expense of openness and transparency. One hallmark of his tenure, they said, has been his tendency to keep the school board out of the decisions involving the district’s operations.

De Beck said the district’s finance staff had made plans to brief the school board on the budget earlier this year, but abandoned it in the face of Betancourt’s opposition. Instead, the spending plan was not released until late June and was originally spiked by the board over transparency concerns.

At meetings with the superintendent and top officials, Betancourt would express little patience for the elected school board members, said a former senior district executive who attended the meetings. At several meetings, Betancourt spoke derisively of the trustees, said the former executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could speak freely about his experiences at the district.

Even Betancourt supporters concede he runs a tight ship and keeps the board at a distance.

“There is a feeling of ownership: Let us do our job, and if at the end of some time, if you feel that the results are not what you need, then you need to make a decision,” said Isom, the union head. “I think there is a feeling, ‘Hey, I’m trying to do my job the best I can.’”

Acle, the board president, said Betancourt has proven to be an effective manager, better at the job than those who preceded him.

“I would not minimize the nature of the challenge, the magnitude of the task. Managing what he manages is not a piece of cake,” Acle said. “It is probably not a mechanism to become popular.”

Another board member, de Beck, said that what angered many people was not Betancourt’s work, but his alienating methods and strategies for getting it done.

“He may have decided that he knew more than the people running the operation, and there are people on the board who think that what he has done was correct,” de Beck said. “It may even be that what he did was correct, but it was the way he did it.”

Betancourt’s Future

A Mexican immigrant, Betancourt said he owes his success and achievements to the public education he received in America and that he is now doing his best to pay back that debt. His commitment and fidelity, Betancourt said, remains to the children of San Diego, not to those interested in dissecting his personality or decisions.

“I owe everything in my life, everything I’ve ever accomplished, to the public school system,” he said.

Betancourt said he believes he should be judged by his accomplishments, not by his management style. If he has helped make the life of just one child better, Betancourt said, he believes he has done well.

But there is little consensus on the admiral’s job performance.

Under Betancourt’s contract with the district, the only opinion that counts is the superintendent’s. And in recent days, Cohn has handed off that responsibility, passing the decision to school board.

When the news of Betancourt’s legal troubles first emerged, a spokeswoman for the superintendent said that Cohn had no intention of asking the chief administrative officer to step down. But last week, after the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune called for Betancourt’s ouster, Cohn wrote in to the paper to say that he wouldn’t consider asking for Betancourt’s resignation until after the school board meets this week to make a decision about his future. He has previously chided the board for micromanagement and demanded that it honor a no-meddling clause in his contract.

Board members say they plan to evaluate all of the work Betancourt has done for the district, and then have their final say.

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled the name of former La Jolla High Principal J.M. Tarvin. We regret the error. Also, because of an erroneous school district organizational chart, the original version of this story incorrectly stated that Betancourt oversees the district’s special education.

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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