It’s official: Terry Grier is the new leader of San Diego Unified, California’s second-largest school district.

Grier’s name was already well-known to San Diego school leaders after North Carolina news outlets reported that San Diego school board members visited Grier in his current district, Guilford County Schools, in December. He has worked in Guilford County for nearly eight years, where he focused heavily on cutting down on school dropouts. His efforts to integrate his district’s economically and racially divided schools via magnet programs spurred both praise and controversy. He also introduced higher pay for teachers working in struggling schools, which typically experience high turnover — a provision that the San Diego Unified teachers union has vowed to fight, if he replicates the policy here. Recently, Grier was honored as North Carolina’s Superintendent of the Year. Nationwide, Grier is known to educators as a prolific writer, featured extensively in national publications such as Education Week and Urban Educator.

Announcing the school board’s unanimous decision to hire Grier, board president Katherine Nakamura called Grier “the best superintendent candidate in the land.”

San Diego Unified is nearly twice the size of Guilford County Schools, with a different ethnic makeup. But board members were excited by Grier’s professional achievements, aggressive stance on school reform, and apparent rapport with the school board. Unlike his predecessor, Carl Cohn, Grier seems more comfortable with conflict. In his first public remarks in San Diego, he said, “I know that board members don’t always agree. … But you can’t be around this group of people without really sensing their passion and commitment.”

“I was intrigued by the challenges that are here,” he told reporters shortly afterwards.

After the board introduced Grier, he plunged into a crowd of parents, principals, and community members, joking easily with a group of teens from Morse High School. He handed one Morse teen his card, promptly her to remark, “I’ll be out of school Monday, so we can have lunch or something.”

It is unclear when Grier will start. His contract, which pays $269,000 annually, begins July 1, but Nakamura said the board hoped to see him start sooner, depending on his obligations to Guilford County. When he does, he already knows what he’ll do. Grier mentioned a 100-day plan that lays out what he’ll do in his first days as superintendent. Much of that time would be spent listening, he said.

Grier’s contract also stipulates that he and the school board will agree to three specific, measurable district-wide goals, used to determine his performance. For each goal achieved, Grier will receive $3,500. Failing to meet those goals is a potential cause for termination, under the contract. But a quirky provision holds board members’ feet to the fire as well: If all three goals aren’t met, Grier could actually earn a bonus. If the superintendent and the board don’t agree to extend time to achieve the goals, and the delay isn’t due to “the superintendent’s lack of concurrence with the goals,” Grier will earn $10,500. 

Board member Mitz Lee called the provision “great.”

“We’ll be mutually accountable,” Lee said. But with Grier’s history, she said she hopes it won’t be necessary.

“What speaks volumes is, when you can work for 11 board members and you’re not fired,” Lee said, referring to the larger school board in Guilford County. “That says a lot. I was amazed!”

Check back next week for more on Grier, his contract, and what his arrival could mean for San Diego schools.

EMILY ALPERT

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