Monday, Oct. 15, 2007 | San Diego City Schools plans to use a leaner process with less public input to replace outgoing superintendent Carl Cohn than the method used to pick Cohn himself.

The slimmed-down plan is due, in part, to the fact that board members heard hours of public input only two years ago, when Cohn was tapped to supplant Alan Bersin. In the wake of Bersin’s rocky seven-year tenure, the district held five public hearings, scattered across the city. Some were sparsely attended.

Saturday, headhunter Bill Attea and the board will spend a single day soaking up public comment, half of it in discussions with invited stakeholders, the other half open for comment from members of the general public. It’s a significantly shorter forum than the three two-hour community meetings held before Bersin was hired, or the five hearings before Cohn’s selection.

Complaints of secrecy have dogged the past two superintendent searches. Because the decision-making process is largely hidden from public view, in the name of protecting applicants’ privacy, some are skeptical that their comments matter.

When outsider Bersin stepped into San Diego schools’ top job in 1998, newspaper editorials fumed that the “border czar” with little school expertise had been selected by a hand-picked posse of prominent San Diegans far from the schools, who gave the elected board only two candidates to weigh. Trustees outsourced the process to the five-person board, after developing 15 criteria with a broader group that one parent lambasted as “the ersatz larger committee.”

“How dare you design a selection process that purposely distances all the selectors from any close knowledge of the system whose leader they are to select?” wrote Katie Klumpp, an involved parent, in a letter to the 1998 board. “Hypocritical. Elitist. Arrogant. Shameful.”

And when soft-spoken Carl Cohn replaced Bersin in 2005, this time selected directly by the board and a new search firm led by Attea, some were still frustrated. Critics railed against the largely closed process, which they felt to be a betrayal of election-year board promises by trustees Mitz Lee, Shelia Jackson and Luis Acle for a wide-open superintendent search. At the time, Acle defended his switch to The San Diego Union-Tribune, saying he was unaware that closed searches are the industry standard.

Closed superintendent searches are commonplace in public schools. By veiling the process, schools can guarantee applicants that they won’t be exposed to their current employers. That makes established, experienced superintendents more likely to apply, said former school board member Ron Ottinger, who helped oversee Bersin’s selection.

“Any process that results in a political campaign where finalists have to go out and give speeches to the community will reduce the quantity of quality candidates, because sitting superintendents won’t apply,” he said. “And you’ll get all this intense lobbying by various communities, which can only make it that much more difficult for a new superintendent to get started with a coalition of support.”

Bersin’s name was leaked to the press, along with that of his competitor, Peter Negroni, before the board officially chose Bersin, Ottinger noted. A Chicano group slammed what it called “his strained relationship with Latino leaders,” and others fretted over his limited experience in schools. If Bersin’s name had been kept quiet, he said, the transition would have gone more smoothly.

Others counter that when it comes to picking superintendents, the balance between privacy and the public interest has tilted too far to the former. Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said it makes sense to withhold the names of a large pool of initial applicants, but not the final few candidates, whose supervisors have likely been contacted by recruiters.

As for public lobbying and digs, said Scheer, “If that’s going to happen, it’ll happen after you announce the result — setting the guy up for failure — or it’ll happen beforehand, when there’s time to respond to the criticism.”

One skeptic, school board candidate Scott Barnett, says he was invited to share his comments with Attea — and declined. Public comment has little impact on the selection process, he believes.

“The school board is going to pick whomever they think is the right person, no matter what the committees suggest,” Barnett said. He plans to send his suggestions in writing instead. “The rest of this is frankly eyewash. It’s not to say that they don’t care what the public thinks … but this is much for showing that they’re seeking input, as opposed to really desiring it.”

With the top spot open for the third time in a decade, board members are mulling what qualities they’d seek in the new superintendent. Cohn’s selection was, in many ways, a counterpoint to Bersin, whose “top-down management” alienated many, said Jackson.

Cohn’s softer style has changed the dynamic for this search, said trustee Katherine Nakamura, who said the board wasn’t seeking an anti-Cohn.

Still, the same qualities that are admired in Cohn — his loyalty and consensus-building — have frustrated some principals, who found it difficult to lodge complaints against the administrators he imported from Long Beach, said Jeannie Steeg, executive director of the Administrators Association of San Diego City Schools.

“He made it very clear that he would not micromanage the people that he would put in place,” Steeg said. “I admire him for saying that, but when there are concerns about your top management people, you can’t go to the superintendent. … There’s no recourse.”

Other controversies have marred Cohn’s last months: In June, the school board voted down a district budget, complaining they were given too little time to read it. In July, his Chief Administrative Officer, José Betancourt, pleaded guilty to violating federal conflict-of-interest laws by failing to disclose his work for a defense contractor. In August, Betancourt was ushered out by the board. And lukewarm test scores released in August have other pushing for a renewed focus on achievement.

Those concerns — and more — are likely to turn up during recruiter Attea’s meetings with principals, teachers, school police, custodians and other school employees this Friday, and his open forum Saturday, in addition to the varying pet issues of school trustees. And that means Attea has a tough job ahead, playing matchmaker to a squabbling board.

“This person is almost going to marry five people,” Lee said.

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

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