All this talk about whether something is wrong with the way San Diego Unified is run is not new. In fact, the school district has already spent a good chunk of money trying to fix it.
You might remember that we wrote about this same issue of micromanaging school boards two years ago, when Carl Cohn was departing as superintendent. That problem loomed so large that the board members then brought in an outside consultant from their superintendent search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, to help them talk about their roles and the role of the superintendent.
Here’s an excerpt from the article I wrote then:
As San Diego seeks its next superintendent, trustees are talking openly about goals and roles, where their powers end, and where the superintendent’s begin. Clashes over those roles and powers have deviled the district and frustrated the tenure of Superintendent Carl Cohn, who announced his decision to leave the district in September.
With Cohn’s departure imminent, Attea urged trustees not to micromanage the school district and its staff, to focus on broad goals and vision, not control how they’re implemented.
But trustees used to fielding phone calls from angry parents vexed by specific issues — a controversial reading assignment, an ineffective principal, a beloved class being cut — bucked at stepping back too far. And trustees say they lack a clear budget and consistent communication with staff, key to filling their appropriate role as trustees.
“Keeping out of the micromanaging … is very hard when you have parents calling you in tears,” said trustee Katharine Nakamura at Monday’s school board meeting.
Sound familiar? After the school board picked the new superintendent, Terry Grier, it brought in a new consultant, the Aspen Group LLC, to keep working on governance issues with them in April 2008. I’ve tallied up $229,000 in contracts to those consultants since then, plus another $160,000 contract the school board signed with Aspen to work with them for the next school year.
Just because the school board is still getting accused of micromanaging doesn’t mean that the governance training was for naught: The board also hashed out a vision for the future of San Diego Unified and agreed to timelines for regular reports on the operations of the school district from staff. It also hit some bumpy spots, such as a policy that barred the school board from publicly criticizing the superintendent or staff, which was later canceled. And when new school board members were elected, they started planning a decentralized way of making decisions that matched their views.
But when school board member Katherine Nakamura told me that the closed meeting today gave them a real opportunity for some honest conversation about their roles and allowing the superintendent to be the superintendent, I had to ask: Wasn’t that what all those governance trainings were for? What happened in that closed meeting that wasn’t happening in those earlier trainings?
“The issue of Houston maybe clarifies things,” she said. “We had some more honest conversations.”