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Friday, Jan. 25, 2008 | An unlikely firebrand with a Southern drawl is slated to take over San Diego schools this year, marking a shift from the subdued tenure of past superintendent Carl Cohn.

In a roller-coaster career, Terry Grier, 57, has been hailed as North Carolina’s best superintendent, ousted by a Sacramento school board after only 18 months, mocked on North Carolina bumper stickers, and now, tapped to lead California’s second-largest school district. He’s known nationally as a mover who wants change — and wants it now.

South Meets West

  • The Issue: Terry Grier, tapped to lead San Diego Unified, is known as a bold innovator whose reforms have won both acclaim and enemies in North Carolina.
  • What It Means: Grier represents a shift in direction for the school district, most recently led by peacemaker Carl Cohn.
  • The Bigger Picture: With a budget crisis looming, San Diego Unified’s new leader will face tough choices with few popular answers.

“He’s not going to let the status quo reign, for sure,” said Jay Goldman, editor of the American Association of School Administrators monthly magazine, who profiled Grier last year. And “it’s not unusual for a superintendent who takes on difficult issues to face very public opposition.”

Grier is the third superintendent to oversee San Diego Unified in a turbulent decade. In that time, schools have ricocheted between the aggressive, abrasive style of former border czar Alan Bersin and the quiet peacemaking of Cohn. The latter arrived in San Diego after a successful decade-long tenure in Long Beach schools, but left only two years into his term after clashes with the school board, saying he lacked enough passion to persist.

In Grier, the school system seems to have found an unusual alloy of Bersin’s drive and Cohn’s calm. No stranger to conflict, Grier has seen bumper stickers proclaiming “Honk If You’ve Been Grier-Ended” and lawn signs reading “Get Grier Outta Here.” Yet even his bitterest foes in Guilford County, where he’s served as superintendent for eight years, describe Grier as demure and cordial, despite the harsh controversy over his plans — including merit pay for teachers and bussing students to integrate schools.

In San Diego, he faces new challenges in a school district nearly twice as large as Guilford County’s. In North Carolina, teachers lack the right to strike; in San Diego, unionized teachers have vowed to “go to the wall” if Grier replicates controversial pay system he installed in Guilford County. The needs of English-learning students loom larger here, where a far greater proportion of students are Hispanic. Guilford County’s enrollment is growing; San Diego’s has shrunk, with enrollment expected to level or drop slightly next year. And California’s schools are threatened by a statewide budget crisis, expected to drain $70 million from San Diego Unified schools this year.

Success will pay — literally. Grier agreed to a performance pay plan, which gives him a bonus for each goal he meets. Failing those goals is a cause for dismissal. Grier could not be reached for an interview this week, after returning to North Carolina from San Diego. But his backers in Guilford County say he’s up to the task.

“Dr. Grier can go through an intense struggle,” said Dorothy Kearns, who has spent 16 years on the Guilford County school board. “People can knock him down, but the next morning he’s up, ready to meet the next challenge. With joy.”

Aggressive Moves Won Acclaim and Enemies

Grier is bold, and he moves fast. Under Grier’s direction, Guilford County started a dizzying array of initiatives, few without their critics. He’s piloted middle colleges, where at-risk high school students study on college campuses, expanded pre-kindergarten, and pushed more students to take Advanced Placement classes.

“He’s not afraid to try bold new programs. He’s a fan of programs,” said high school teacher Erik Huey, a Grier critic who is running for the Guilford County school board. “The word program itself is probably his middle name.”

One such program is Mission Possible, which pays teachers more to work in tough schools where staff turnover is often high. Teachers also earn more if they boost test scores, a plan commonly known as merit pay. Supporters say the plan, now in its infancy, will stabilize low-income, underperforming schools by retaining and rewarding teachers.

Grier has cautioned that he won’t automatically replicate his Guilford County programs in San Diego, stating that each community’s needs are unique. But the mere suggestion of merit pay has provoked sharp words from the teacher’s union, whose president calls it “offensive and divisive.”

In Guilford, a major redistricting plan sparked some parents’ ire, as students were bussed to schools far from home. When Grier arrived in Guilford County in 2000, the school district, cobbled together from three smaller school systems in 1993, was deeply divided along race and class lines, Kearns said. She called it “the ethos of slavery.” When the school board created a plan to reshuffle students, diversifying the schools, parents complained about the change, and took Grier to task.

“You buy a house close to school so you can walk to it, and all of a sudden, that right is taken from you,” said Martin Phillips, whose three children attend Guilford County Schools. “You don’t live in a free country anymore.”

Kearns lauded the move, saying it equalized opportunities for Guilford County kids, and drew together the far-flung, segregated district. The costs — moving kids — were far outweighed by the gains, she said.

“It was certainly understandable that people who lived closer to an outlying school were more comfortable there,” Kearns said. “But it was more a matter of … resistance to the change in the school population.”

He has said his proudest feat is halving the dropout rate, which declined from 6 percent to 3 percent during his tenure. But Grier’s critics have vocally questioned that success, claiming that the data don’t match the graduation rates.

In general, data has been a bone of contention. Gauging the overall progress of Guilford County schools can be difficult: North Carolina schools are rated in two ways, both of which rely on standards that have changed year to year. By one standard, Guilford County schools appear to be progressing; by another, they seem to have declined. That paradox has fed speculation among Grier’s critics, despite the data’s fuzziness.

Grier is also known for vastly expanding tough Advanced Placement classes, which can translate into college credit. Under his leadership, Guilford County schools have nearly tripled the number of students taking AP courses, and encouraged more disadvantaged kids to sign up. The sheer volume of AP classes catapulted 13 Guilford County schools onto a Newsweek list of Top Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate Schools last year.

“There was some resistance from teachers saying [students were] not prepared for this advanced math — and there was some truth to that,” Kearns said. “But it’s still unbelievable how many of our poor and minority students take those classes.”

Less than half of students actually pass the AP exam, which is required for all students who take the classes; among black students, passage rates are lower, with less than one quarter passing. Still, the net result is more students earning Advanced Placement credits, with more than twice as many Guilford students passing the test in 2007 than in 2000.

The firestorm that attended Grier in Guilford County isn’t unique in a decades-long career that has crisscrossed the nation. He began his career as a classroom teacher in North Carolina, specializing in biology and health, and ascended to his first superintendency in McDowell County. In 1988, a year-long superintendent stint in Amarillo, Texas reportedly ended with his resignation; in 1995, he was fired by the Sacramento City Unified School District after only 17 months. Grier later chalked up the firing to his refusal to hire a board member’s longtime friend. Former Sacramento school board members declined to comment.

Grier has also worked in Tennessee, South Carolina and Ohio. As he takes over in San Diego — a city that “thrives on conflict,” Cohn has said — more battles are likely on the horizon.

“If we’ve had a person [like Cohn] who brings about change gradually, over time, and San Diego has difficulty with that, how are they going to deal with someone who brings about change a lot quicker?” school board member Shelia Jackson asked hypothetically. But Grier’s rocky past may also better equip him to weather the sparring, she said. “We’ll see.”

For Grier, Success Pays — Literally

Grier’s contract, which allows him extra pay for meeting goals, breaks new ground for San Diego Unified. Cohn had no such provision in his contract, and a similar scheme for Bersin relied on broad goals. In contrast, Grier’s bonuses will hinge on three specific, measurable yearly goals that have yet to be set. For each goal he meets, Grier will earn $3,500. If he fails, the board can fire him.

Nationwide, such incentives are increasingly common, with most superintendents offered far higher bonuses than Grier, said Ron Wilson, executive director of the North American Association of Educational Negotiators. Typically, a superintendent can expect to earn between $5,000 and $7,500 per goal, with the potential to boost their base salary between 10 and 20 percent. Grier can earn a maximum of $10,500 extra each year — less than 4 percent of his $269,000 salary.

A quirk in the contract allows Grier to earn $10,500 even if the goals aren’t met, provided that “the delay is not due to the superintendent’s lack of concurrence with the goals.” Wilson called the provision “a worst-case scenario,” to prevent the superintendent from losing if board members “got into loggerheads” over already-set goals. If he simply disagrees with the goals, however, the superintendent loses.

School board member Mitz Lee touted Grier’s bonuses as an accountability tool. Wilson, a backer of superintendent performance pay, said the measures help set clear, reasonable expectations for school superintendents.

“When superintendents go into the job, they’re expected to walk on water,” Wilson said. “This is a little bit more realistic, as to what can be done.”

Superintendent bonuses have sometimes stirred up opposition among principals and teachers, who feel superintendents get all the credit for system-wide reforms. Jackson raised that concern, asking, “What about the principals … who have to reach these goals? Are we giving them extra compensation too?”

Grier’s salary is slightly higher than the $250,000 salary paid to Cohn. Bersin’s salary was renegotiated over his seven-year tenure, from $165,000 in 1998 to $240,000 in 2005. Two years ago, the average salary afforded to oversee a district of San Diego Unified’s size was $228,000, according to a study by the Council for Great City Schools. Grier’s pay is comparable to other school chiefs in the San Diego region: In nearby Grossmont, a new superintendent recently negotiated a $240,000 contract to lead a significantly smaller district.

At any price, Grier is saddled with a tough job, in a school district that’s been tough on its superintendents. But Grier is well-acquainted with controversy. For him, it’s been a side effect of getting unpopular things done.

“I know that board members don’t always agree,” Grier said Saturday, in his first public appearance in San Diego. “… But you can’t be around this group of people without really sensing their passion and commitment.”

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

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