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Sunday, March 22, 2009 | The honeymoon was short for Superintendent Terry Grier — very short. As soon as he walked through the all-but-revolving doors of San Diego Unified, Grier plunged into a bruising budget crisis and a bond campaign.

His actions and ideas quickly earned the enmity of the teachers’ union and the financial bleeding only worsened this year. And the November election ushered in a new school board majority that was less enthusiastic about his aggressive style, sparking rumors that Grier was already on his way out.

But a year later, Grier is still here and insisting that he has no plans to jump ship. He has deferred to the new school board without public protest and praises its new president Shelia Jackson, who was once one of his toughest critics.

“Just getting along with the school board is an accomplishment in San Diego,” said school board member John de Beck. “He has made the transition and that is amazing.”

Grier began his tenure last March at a rapid pace, unfolding new ideas, hiring new staffers, and revamping almost every department in the school district. He planned to slash the dropout rate with programs that prepare kids for college and link schoolwork to a future career. He planned to fold technology into every classroom. He planned to slash the achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white and Asian classmates. New plans seemed to sprout from every corner of the school district.

“He wants to move quickly — some would say maybe too quickly. But we have too many kids failing to wait. He talks about that all the time,” said Paula Cordeiro, dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego.

Grier argued that teachers should be paid more for working in disadvantaged neighborhoods, a controversial method that he tried in his last district in North Carolina. He even took on little issues like how employees dressed, chiding the workers in the central offices for their spaghetti straps, blue jeans and flip flops. And each of his new ideas and plans, big and small, seemed to conjure up the same fearful refrain.

“Anytime you talk about trying to do something different or innovative or new, immediately your critics jump up and say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that,’” Grier said. “Why not? And they say, ‘Well, Bersin did that. You’re going to be compared to Bersin.’”

The Southern firebrand is frequently compared to Alan Bersin, a former superintendent who oversaw a controversial overhaul of the schools, was favored by business leaders as a driven reformer, loathed by the teachers union, and eventually prodded out by critics who called him abrasive and inflexible. It is sometimes a compliment, sometimes a slur, and sometimes a cautionary tale.

Grier once joked that he had never met Bersin, but he felt like the man was living in his closet.

Grier is a longtime educator, unlike Bersin, and is touted by some of the same board members who disliked the former school chief. He is also compared, albeit much less frequently, to the peacemaker Superintendent Carl Cohn. But whether or not the Bersin comparison is apt, Grier is dogged by some of the same complaints as Bersin, trying to deploy some of the same ideas as Bersin, and hoping to avoid the same fate as Bersin.

“The thing that you hear over and over again about Alan Bersin was that very few people disagreed with where he was trying to go, but his style turned people who would have agreed with him into opponents,” said Richard Barrera, a new member of the school board. “I very much worry about that with Terry’s style.”

He added, “It could result in people resisting change that I think might actually be good for the district.”

That question has continued to haunt Grier as his second year rolls forward. Nobody quibbles with his push to keep teenagers from dropping out. Few would argue with his idea of building up classroom technology. But the legacy of Bersin persists in reminding San Diego Unified that the “how” of school reform can be just as critical as the “what.” And there is no shortage of challenges ahead of Grier, from the evolving budget crisis to the alienated unions to the unrolling of the new facilities bond — not to mention steering students away from dropping out and closing the achievement gap.

Scrubbing the Budget and Mending Fences

Grier has yet to be evaluated by the school board, and it is too early to say whether test scores have risen or fallen under his watch. His three annual goals are upping the graduation rate by 2.5 percent, developing a balanced and transparent budget, and crafting a strategy for the future of San Diego Unified that includes a clear system of goals, internal monitoring, and identifying the best teachers and principals possible.

He has courted the business community, which has shied from getting involved in the schools since Bersin was pushed out of the district, and reached out to local luminaries in the universities to share ideas. Some of his fans liken him to a CEO at a thriving company, moving quickly and delegating tasks based on data, with a clear focus on an end result. Attorney Tyler Cramer, once the chairman of the now-dissolved Business Roundtable for Education, said he “could manage any organization on the planet.”

Yet the business analogies are worrisome to Jackson and other new board members who believe that the traditional model of school change, in which a superintendent shakes up a system from the top, has failed. They want to gather ideas at the grassroots level and get the superintendent to carry them out. Grier is adjusting to that idea, Jackson said. But hanging back is not instinctive for a superintendent with Grier’s sense of urgency.

“I don’t want to tinker around with a little change here and a little change there,” he said. “We want to transform how we do business.”

Some of his plans are already done or underway. Grier successfully pushed a new virtual high school and “credit recovery” classes where teens who have fallen behind can make up classes online. San Diego Unified snagged a plum planning grant to ramp up career technical education. And he has taken on the unglamorous task of cleaning up the business side of San Diego Unified by forcing departments to build their budgets from scratch, reorganizing the district, and changing how schools are funded. Barrera credits him with “scrubbing the budget.”

“We are a more coherent, focused and better run district now,” said Katherine Nakamura, another school board member. “Without him, I hate to think where we’d be.”

But the budget crises hijacked his time and eventually slowed his pace. Some of his ideas — most notably any move toward paying teachers more to work at disadvantaged schools — seem to have stalled after the election of the new board. He wishes he had made more progress toward his dream of a multitude of small, themed high schools that would reel in students who had dropped out with personalized attention and creative curricula.

Grier’s passions are evident and he is rarely at a loss for a new idea. Yet critics contend that his larger strategy for reshaping San Diego Unified is still unclear to them. It is the exact opposite of the praise he has received from business leaders and intellectuals who describe him as more focused and intentional than any superintendent in recent memory — a sign of the deep rift in opinions over Grier and his leadership.

Some of his decisions have been poorly explained or hastily unrolled, hurting his credibility with parents and community groups. He yanked a popular principal from a Sherman Heights school and reinstated him after parents howled. Sweeping proposals that barred criticism of the superintendent and his staff and empowered Grier to decimate old policies were scrapped. And he lost points with many parents by quietly delegating a politically explosive question — which small elementary schools should be closed to save money — to a committee and hinting that he could waive policies to speed up school closures.

“It was all wrong. The public practically had to force its way in,” said Holly Stevens, president of the Parent Teacher Association at Sequoia Elementary. She added, “I think he’s trying. But he should involve the public — sooner and completely.”

Yet Grier has showed that he can be willing to bend and change his plans. When the school board decided this month that closing schools was not an option, Grier fell in line and searched for savings elsewhere. He reinstated the popular principal last summer and he quickly dropped the two contentious policies, uttering a now familiar phrase: “I’m easy with that.”

“He has had to patch up a lot of fences,” said Bruce McGirr, president of the Administrators Association, which includes principals and other school managers. His group had problems with Grier not seeking their input earlier in his tenure, McGirr said, but that has changed. “In the beginning he was pretty much a one man show. He’s finally figuring out that he can get a lot more working with us than working without us.”

‘The Biggest Problem … Is Terry Grier’

One example of the clashes Grier has inspired and the challenges he faces is the fate of the “cohort” plan, floated early in his tenure, to keep all students with the same teachers, chosen randomly for the students, between kindergarten and second grade. Parents revolted against the idea and then-board member Mitz Lee invoked the missteps of Bersin. So Grier pared it back to a pilot program to be studied at a few dozen schools and sweetened the deal by allowing for smaller classes at some schools.

The difference between Grier and Bersin is that Grier listened, Lee said. “We said, ‘It is not going to work.’ And he didn’t press that.”

But not everyone felt that Grier listened. While teachers were eager for smaller classes, their union President Camille Zombro said the plan was a weird “grand experiment” that looked nothing like what teachers would have designed, using precious resources in a scattered manner. Changes in class size have to be bargained with the union, she said, but the plan was unrolled without any negotiation.

So the union filed a charge that San Diego Unified had violated labor law by not working out the plan with the union. Zombro said it has now filed four such charges with the Public Employment Relations Board. It filed none under the last superintendent, she said. The cohort plan is now completely in limbo due to budget cuts. And the ice between Grier and many of the unions has only thickened.

“The biggest problem in this school district right now is Terry Grier,” Zombro said. “We don’t trust him. How can we resolve these big issues when the person at the other side of the table is someone that nobody trusts?”

Bargaining with the teachers over a new contract has all but ground to a halt over the past eight months. Unions criticize Grier for bringing in outside experts to handle reforms, such as a new way to evaluate principals, calling it wasteful. And they are suspicious of the expansion of his cabinet to include more than twice as many school chiefs — an action that Grier contends actually saved money. Zombro called him unreasonable and divisive after the school district worked out a budget plan that relied on concessions from unions as a way to avoid deeply unpopular cuts to athletics and the arts. His relationships with the unions that represent bus drivers, secretaries and other employees are almost as dismal.

“He has failed to bring in our employees and unions to get their input,” said Dave Fernandez, a labor relations representative for the California School Employees Association. He added, “We weren’t brought into the budget discussions until February. And we find that frustrating.”

Grier cited the sour relationship with the teachers union as his chief mistake. But he could not say what he would have done differently, saying, “It’s hard to second guess yourself.” Barrera said that he had seen no change in how the superintendent and the union interact. Overcoming that divide is perhaps the greatest hurdle for Grier. But throwing off the long, persistent shadow of Alan Bersin is another, perhaps no smaller challenge.

“He is his own superintendent. We are all going to have to get past that,” said Scott Himelstein, director of the Central for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego. He is consulting San Diego Unified on its career education plans. “And that is what Terry is trying to do.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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