Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007 | The question hung in the air.

“Who can tell me what the mission is of the San Diego Unified School District?” asked Bill Attea, the headhunter hired to find San Diego’s next superintendent.

San Diego’s school board fell silent, like a roomful of stumped students.

Basic questions such as the schools’ mission and the role of the school board have split San Diego’s trustees, sparking public squabbles at meetings. Even the trustees kid about their clashes. But the spats aren’t a joke. Critics worry that if San Diego’s school board lacks shared goals, it won’t accomplish anything. Nor can it give direction to its new superintendent.

“You’re setting someone up for failure,” said Susan Baumann, owner of the Bali Hai restaurant. Baumann advised the school board on its superintendent search last month in a public panel. “The school board hasn’t been clear about what they want. In the business world, you’d all get in a room, decide what your goals were, and have a timeline on how to reach those goals. You’d give those to whoever you hire … and hold their feet to the fire. I don’t see how we can do that when the directive’s not clear.”

As San Diego seeks its next superintendent, trustees are talking openly about goals and roles, where their powers end, and where the superintendent’s begin. Clashes over those roles and powers have deviled the district and frustrated the tenure of Superintendent Carl Cohn, who announced his decision to leave the district in September.

With Cohn’s departure imminent, Attea urged trustees not to micromanage the school district and its staff, to focus on broad goals and vision, not control how they’re implemented.

But trustees used to fielding phone calls from angry parents vexed by specific issues — a controversial reading assignment, an ineffective principal, a beloved class being cut — bucked at stepping back too far. And trustees say they lack a clear budget and consistent communication with staff, key to filling their appropriate role as trustees.

“Keeping out of the micromanaging … is very hard when you have parents calling you in tears,” said trustee Katharine Nakamura at Monday’s school board meeting.

“And we are elected officials,” board president Luis Acle later added.

Trustees Set Goals, Debate Role

Monday, trustees named five goals to reach before June 2009. Board members culled the short list from dozens of suggestions, ranging from boosting classroom technology to retaining teachers to reforming special education. When each of the five trustees was asked to select his or her five top goals from the list, the group generated 21 different suggestions.

“Any organization that tries to address all of those at the same time would implode,” Attea said, guiding the trustees to narrow their list. “Priorities need to be established.”

Trustees settled on five draft goals: Creating a plan to reach low-performing students in early grades and throughout their school careers. A balanced budget that an ordinary person can understand. Effective, regular communication between the school board and the superintendent. Ongoing assessment of student achievement. And a long-term strategic plan that reaches beyond the short-term goals.

Equipped with that list, the board has tentatively agreed on what it wants. But members remain split over what they do — the fundamental question of their powers and responsibilities as elected trustees. Attea drew a sharp line between the “hows” and “whats” handled by schools. Trustees should decide “what” schools should accomplish, Attea said. Staff handle the “hows.”

Splitting those responsibilities is key, said governance theorist John Carver, an Atlanta consultant who pioneered board policy theory. Yet it’s rarely done.

“School boards try to do the staff’s work, and they don’t do their own work. And they don’t do staff work very well,” Carver said in an interview. The problem isn’t unique to school boards, he said. “I’ve worked with the board of British Petroleum, which is massive. They don’t have their act together, either.”

But unlike British Petroleum’s board, school trustees hear frequently from people with specific, personal concerns, said Jo Ann Yee, senior director for urban affairs of the California School Board Association. Those complaints sometimes prod trustees to delve into practical issues that Carver considers beyond their purview.

“You’re not going to find anything closer to the people than school boards,” Yee said in an interview. Previously, Yee served on the Sacramento City Unified school board. “Whenever you mix children and money and education, there’s going to be a heightened interest among the constituents. … And education is something that everybody thinks they understand.”

As a result, Attea said, school boards are often buffeted by “the loudest voices” among aggravated parents, and veer from one pet issue to the next, instead of addressing the larger, district-wide questions. Schools nationwide have worsened the problem by failing to address parent worries at the school site, prompting angry parents to telephone the board members they elected, Attea said.

In San Diego, the problem of trustee meddling has erupted more frequently with the current trustees, none of whom hold a full-time job, than with working trustees, said Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association

“If they were part-time board members, as they were originally intended to be, they wouldn’t have so much time to micromanage,” Lutar said. “That’s how things have changed.”

Under the outgoing Cohn, San Diego schools have pushed to become more family-friendly and responsive to parent concerns. But memories are long, and perceptions persist that local schools don’t welcome parents.

“As a parent, I don’t feel like I can change anything,” said Patricia Jimenez. Years ago, Jimenez fought San Diego’s Marston Middle School over her son’s expulsion. “They tell you to call the parent liaison, but they’re (with) the district. It’s like sleeping with the enemy. … I feel like it’s going to get swept under the rug either way.”

Unclear Budgets Hamper Board Oversight

San Diego’s board faces additional challenges that other school boards don’t. Though San Diego school trustees have been accused of meddling in the day-to-day operations of the district, they rarely alter its budget. School trustees struggle to understand the budget, which doesn’t break down spending by department or program.

Because the budget isn’t clear, trustees have had little control over how money is allocated. In June, the school board threatened to reject the budget, frustrated by its lack of clarity. The county Taxpayers Association panned the budget, calling it opaque.

“In our view, budget is policy, and policy is budget,” Lutar said. “You can’t separate them out. That’s a clear area where the board should be involved.”

One trustee has spent hours researching user-friendly school budgets, to demystify the district’s spending. Katherine Nakamura hopes a new, reader-friendly budget will be ready by June, when trustees review the spending plan. Chief Financial Officer Bill Kowba is reworking the budget to answer those concerns.

Another barrier is communication. School staff hasn’t consistently informed the school board about major plans, some trustees complain. Recently, trustees were surprised to learn that a bankrupt private school had been folded into a public school as a special program. Trustee John de Beck recounted the episode to Attea, still fuming. When those problems erupt, de Beck said he can’t sit back and craft policy.

“You need to be kept informed about what’s happening,” Attea said, after hearing de Beck’s complaints. “… And it appears it’s not happening in this district.”

But, he later added, “Your board is to establish effective two-way communication with the superintendent. That’s where this board has not done its job.”

And trustees can only do a job, theorist Carver said, if they know what the job is.

“If you ask almost any school employee, ‘Sally, Ted, what’s your job?’ you’ll get a clear answer. But if you ask the (trustees with the) most powerful job in the whole organization, you won’t,” Carver said. “That’s a recipe for absolute disaster.”

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

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