Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008 | Once again the revolving door at San Diego Unified School District strikes. In less than five years, we have a third superintendent, Terry Grier, late of North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools.

Departing is Dr. Carl Cohn, hitting the bricks after less than two years because, as reported, he was “…losing interest in the job.” Boredom: I think not. Perhaps his departure is more about his frustration in dealing with the legacy of his predecessor, Alan Bersin. Many believe that Bersin’s confrontational leadership style significantly contributed to a breakdown of the relationship between his office, the principals, teachers, unions and the school board.

Unless Grier can dramatically improve this situation, there may be another superintendent in short order and this frequent turnover of leadership costs lots of money — money that could be better spent on the education of our children.

To better understand what Cohn encountered when he took the job, I have relied on more than 100 hours of interviews conducted with the key players at the San Diego Unified School District: the school Board, the union leadership, district administrators, students and faculty. My findings were published in a white paper, “Bridging the Gap: A Crisis of Change in Education.” During the preparation of that paper, I found two quotes to be particularly relevant to the situation at Unified: Winthrop Rockefeller’s, “You cannot guarantee the success of an educational program just because the Principals and Teachers are for it, but you can guarantee its failure if they are not,” and Niccolo Machiavelli’s, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

The Blueprint for Student Success was Bersin’s “new order,” nothing less than an ambitious and comprehensive overhaul of the District.  Change is always hard, and Bersin’s “my way or the highway” leadership style did little to gain the trust and support of those essential to its success.

Exacerbated by mass firings of principals, battles with the union and the school board, the “new order” failed, leaving in its wake the contentious atmosphere that greeted Cohn. All of my interviews, including Bersin himself and those who engineered Bersin’s selection as superintendent, ratified this observation. 

When Cohn took the reins at Unified he was greeted by a school board engaged in a civil war between those groomed to support Bersin and those who felt abused and alienated.  Cohn certainly possessed the leadership and management skills to heal this breach and to calm the unions, teachers and principals. He engaged in extensive outreach and consensus building and made significant progress in improving relations between all of these factions, except the school board.

It was this that may have ultimately stymied his efforts to restore trust and confidence in the Superintendent’s office, not his “…losing interest in the job,” and may have significantly motivated his decision to leave.

So Cohn has gone the way of former superintendents Pendleton and Bersin and once again the taxpayers have financed another expensive contract buy-out.  In order for Grier to succeed and to get the district into order, he will need more than enlightened leadership and consensus building skills. He will need a school board willing and able to set aside their personal agendas and learn the value of teamwork and compromise. To aid in this task, we need union leadership and teachers and administrators also willing to find common ground.

Dr. Grier has an impressive resume, but resumes do not reveal the whole man and it might be a good idea to look behind the words and engage those he has led in the past to determine if he has the leadership skills to build the consensus and respect he will need for the district to succeed.

We should know what we are getting ourselves into because if he has not earned the respect and cooperation of those he has led in the past, he will not fare well in San Diego. I hope he has because the bottom line is that we need a school district where all those engaged understand that their first duty is to the welfare and education of their charges: our children.

Wade Sanders is a community activist. Please send a letter to the editor with your own thoughts on the district’s future.

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