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Friday, Oct. 26, 2007 | Decapitated again, San Diego City Schools is seeking a leader to stabilize California’s second-largest school system. And amid the barrage of advice supplied to school trustees by professors, parents, CEOs and community activists, one comment was echoed, over and over: Think locally.
“Please don’t bring New York here. Don’t bring Long Beach here,” said Mary Bixby, president of the Charter School of San Diego, referring to exiting Superintendent Carl Cohn’s prior work in Long Beach. “We have very, very gifted people, right here.”
But with sky-high expectations mounting for San Diego’s next superintendent, finding a skilled candidate who wants the job could be tough, if the district restricts its search to San Diego, the county, or even Southern California.
The push for a San Diego insider follows a turbulent decade for San Diego Schools: A teacher’s strike clouded Bertha Pendleton’s tenure, before school outsider Alan Bersin stepped in. Bersin’s aggressive, top-down reforms alienated teachers, and ultimately led to his ouster. Cohn, in turn, earned praise as a peacemaker, but had little time to boost school achievement. His exit, only two years into his tenure, disrupts the district again.
“I don’t think Dr. Cohn ever really connected with the community,” said trustee Katherine Nakamura, when asked why a local candidate seems to hold such appeal. Nakamura doesn’t believe a local candidate is necessary, but added that the right candidate would balance commitment to San Diego with a national outlook. “I don’t know that he ever really saw himself in his position very long.”
Exhausted by the superintendent’s revolving door, some are seeking a rooted San Diegan to forestall another quick exit.
“We want someone who’s looking for the long haul,” said Lori Cooper, a Valencia Park Elementary parent and board member of the San Diego Organizing Project. “We’ve had so many people that have been transitional people, here today and gone tomorrow.”
A surprising collection of commentators are nudging the schools to look inward. Last week, San Diego’s business gurus gathered to give input on the superintendent search, and questioned why schools don’t “grow their own” leaders, as private companies do.
“Where’s the succession plan?” asked Joseph Kinard, executive director of the Diamond Business Improvement District.
“We’re always trying to go so far outside of our community,” added Dan Hom, president of FocusCom, Inc. “Don’t we have anyone who knows our community, who’s been here?”
One name has cropped up: Angela Bass, a veteran San Diego educator now leading the Baldrige National Quality Program, which whips schools into shape using the same strategies as businesses.
Bass has spent nearly three decades in San Diego schools, doing every job from teacher to principal to curriculum writer. Her husband is Wendell Bass, former principal of Lincoln High School, now at the helm of the Attendance Intervention Center. A handful of teachers and principals touted her to the school board in a public meeting Saturday, Oct. 20.
“Mrs. Bass has left an indelible impression on my career,” teacher Narciso Garcia said, addressing the school board. Garcia recommended Bass for the superintendent’s spot. Bass herself was absent. “Her leadership continues.”
Yet Bass’ insider status could be a liability. As principal of Encanto Elementary, Angela Bass helped boost reading scores, using Bersin’s controversial strategies. But many teachers resented her role in checking up on classroom teachers: A 2003 article in San Diego Magazine cited hate mail she’d received, including a letter addressed to “Angela, Lucifer of Darkness.”
And it’s not the first time that Bass has inspired lobbying by school staff. When Bass was serving as an instructional leader, a school district move to switch leaders prompted a petition pleading for Bass to keep her job, school trustee Mitz Lee recalled. She didn’t.
“Teachers and principals were not happy about being asked to sign a petition,” Lee said. “If you were working immediately under her, it puts you in a bad spot.”
What’s more, the school board’s previous criteria for the superintendent, now up for revision, include past experience as a superintendent. Bass has served as assistant superintendent, but never held the top job. Unless the board alters its standard, Bass is coming in with a handicap.
Neither Bass nor her husband could be reached for comment this week.
San Diego schools haven’t promoted many insiders to superintendent, noted trustee John de Beck. Then again, few schools do, he said.
“It’s not common, but it’s a good idea” to train an heir apparent to the superintendent, he said. “San Diego hasn’t had any succession plan at all.”
Finding local candidates — or any candidates — can be especially tough as communities place ever-higher demands on superintendents, said Jay Goldman, editor of The School Administrator, a monthly magazine for superintendents. Those demands come both from the state, which sets growing targets for school achievement, and from parents, now louder and more organized thanks to the web, he said.
“There’s not a lot of folks out there clamoring for a big city school superintendency today,” Goldman said. “So the supply is pretty limited to begin with. … These search fires really have to beat the bushes to come up with a high-caliber pool.”
In five hours of public comment Saturday, San Diego parents, CEOs, university faculty and community leaders shared a ream of recommendations, some of them obvious, some of them vague, some of them conflicting: Hire someone who sets high goals. Hire someone who de-emphasizes testing. Hire someone who gravitates toward diversity. Hire a lifelong educator. Hire a leader, but not necessarily an educator.
“There’s almost a Superman mentality that exists in the world of K-12 school districts” when it comes to superintendents, Goldman said.
Faced with those demands, it seems unlikely that the board will narrow its search to San Diego — with or without a local candidate waiting in the wings.