Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 | Urban superintendents tend to be easy come, easy go. Yet even by that low standard, San Diego Unified seems to have a problem with keeping its chiefs.

Superintendent Terry Grier is now headed for Houston, less than a year and a half after coming to San Diego. The news was a surprise, even to those who knew his frustrations. Parents wrung their hands over the rapid turnover and the county Taxpayers Association, normally mum on educational issues, urged the school district to hang on to Grier and stop the churn. That seems improbable.

“We can’t afford to continue this trend,” said Lani Lutar, president of the Taxpayers Association.

National studies have found that the average superintendent has a shelf life of five and a half years. But urban superintendents stay only three and half years on average. There are a few outliers: Atlanta has had the same superintendent for a decade. Boston held on to one leader for even longer. But they are lucky exceptions — not the rule. More often, superintendents come, shuffle staff, unroll new plans, and then leave before those plans can bear fruit, ushering in another superintendent with another take.

Experts say it takes at least five years to turn around a school system. Lagging data sometimes makes it impossible to even gauge the results of reforms until years later. Grier has been credited for his push to cut the dropout rate, for instance, but the latest dropout data are for the year before he hatched some of his key reforms. He often waved off the idea that he had many initiatives in San Diego at all.

Grier’s wanderlust seems to have hit a nerve. It has parents, employees and outsiders worrying about whether the school board is too meddlesome, whether there is a clear sense of where San Diego Unified should be going, and whether other groups need to step up and share in the debate over school reform.

“Superintendents with good reputations are going to be wary of taking on this job,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “The problem is not in the quality of the superintendents. The problem has to be somewhere else.”

Grier was named as the sole finalist for the job in Houston on Thursday. Though there is a 21-day waiting period under Texas law before he can formally be offered a contract, Grier is widely expected to make the leap to Houston, a larger school district that is dangling both a higher salary and the chance to use test scores to reward teachers. The superintendent had clashed repeatedly with the teachers union and the school board over his plans in San Diego. He called Houston “a good match” after he was greeted with applause and handshakes by an exuberant new school board in the Texas district.

“They want a reformer. They want someone who will hold others accountable,” he said in a phone interview from Houston. When asked about where San Diego had fallen short, Grier said, “I’m not going to get into that.”

Before Grier, Superintendent Carl Cohn left after two years, saying he had lost his passion for the job. And before Cohn, Alan Bersin stayed for more than six years, but was pushed out by a new school board.

All three were — or became — known nationally for their work steering schools, Grier in North Carolina, Cohn in Long Beach, and Bersin in San Diego. And the school district once had a plum reputation. It had held onto wealthier areas such as La Jolla and Scripps Ranch while other systems were carved up and split apart into urban and suburban systems. Yet one by one the superintendents left or were pushed away.

There are wildly differing ideas about what, exactly, the problem is. School board member John de Beck believes the school district needs to be split up. Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union, said the school system should hire a chief from the inside. Some blame the union for taking a hard line as budget cuts ravaged the school district; others complain that the school board persecuted him.

“They’ve driven him away,” said de Beck, who is frequently on the losing side on the school board. “He can’t do anything he wants to do. … He turned into a ‘yes man’ just to survive.”

And the dean of a local education school blamed “a perfect storm” that makes superintendents the whipping boys when schools falter — because nobody else is involved or backing them up.

“We have a Mayor’s Office that has no involvement. We have no leadership from the business community, from the higher education community,” said Paula Cordeiro, dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego. “And the public is not really paying any attention to who they elect. Board members who don’t really have anyone running against them.”

Businesses were burned after the Bersin years, when they threw their weight behind the controversial Blueprint reforms. Mayoral control has been in vogue in schools to the east, but there has been little serious talk of handing the schools over to San Diego as the city battles crises of its own. And while nonprofits and universities have helped out at individual schools or special projects, they are not forces to reckon with in school board elections or broader discussions about where schooling should go.

“The economy is in the tank. A lot of businesses are doing their best just to survive,” said Dan McAllister, county treasurer and tax collector and leader of the audit and finance committee in San Diego Unified. “Foundations are hurting too. People just aren’t giving.”

The vacuum of power leaves the small school board open to dramatic shifts of direction. It can be easily tipped with the election of one or two trustees. Years ago, when businesses stepped in, they pushed people who would back Bersin; when the teachers union threw its weight into the school board race, they tilted the board towards labor — and against Grier.

That is easier to do because the elections are barely watched. So a school board hires a superintendent based on its beliefs. That leader moves in, hires employees and makes changes. Then the board changes. The honeymoon ends. And superintendents, who are in short supply nationwide, hear the siren call of elsewhere. Grier told the school board that Houston wooed him, not the other way around.

“It just became more appealing,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Cohn also complained that the “culture of conflict” in San Diego made school board spats unnecessarily nasty. Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris, who joined the school district along with Grier, said that nobody seemed to celebrate success. “The culture here can be hard,” he said.

And others chalk it up to a meddlesome school board, the same problem that undercut Cohn. Boards are supposed to set the general direction for schools, but often step in and redirect smaller decisions about the day-to-day workings of the system, aggravating superintendents who argue that is their job.

This school board is no exception. It specified which schools should enjoy smaller classes with stimulus money, even adding two schools that didn’t meet its original criteria, and reorganized the employees who oversee principals. It has changed its votes from one week to the next, first divvying up money for disadvantaged schools one way, then another, then changing again.

“It would be really difficult for any superintendent to work with this board,” said Jeannie Steeg, executive director of the principals union.

But the problem is ultimately bigger than new faces on the school board, said Richard Colvin, director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. It comes down to San Diego Unified — not just the elected board — deciding what it wants in a superintendent and sticking to it. Board member John Lee Evans said that San Diego Unified is doing exactly that. It hammered out a new vision statement earlier this year. Colvin hopes that it gets that together and can stop the churn of superintendents.

“It becomes a beauty contest,” Colvin said. “First it was, ‘We want someone who’s not Alan.’ Carl came. And then they said, ‘Gee, Carl wasn’t Alan — but we didn’t see anything happening.’ So once again they had a beauty contest. And who is not Carl? Terry Grier.”

(Full disclosure: The Hechinger Institute is sponsoring an unrelated reporting project.)

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