Friday, Aug. 28, 2009 | Superintendent Terry Grier is poised to leave San Diego Unified for Houston after less than two years at its helm. His exit has become a flashpoint for parents, teachers, principals and business leaders to ask: Why does the revolving door keep revolving? Is something wrong with the way the schools operate? Or is this simply a matter of one employee moving on?

I sat down with Grier the week after news broke that he was eyeing a job elsewhere to talk about classroom technology, merit pay and what’s so great about Houston.

A few weeks ago we had talked about the Houston job and you had said, “Give me a break.” What changed between then and now? How did you go from thinking this is an idea totally out of left field to this being a real possibility?

Their recruiting effort. They’d just call and I’d say, “Look, I’m working hard here in San Diego, I’ve only been here 16 months, 17 months. We’ve got our test scores coming back and I’ve really got a good feeling about it.”

I just kept saying to them, “The timing isn’t good. It’s too close to the beginning of the school year.” And they kept calling back. And they kept calling back. And then I had other people from around the country — some leading educators and education advocates — calling and saying, “This would be a much better match. This is a real, reform-minded board. They don’t just talk the talk. They walk the walk. And when you look at the struggles that you’re having in California with the funding, and the reluctance of the union leadership here to be more collaborative, that is not an issue there.”

They’ve got a union president there, Gayle Fallon, who has a reputation as a reformer herself. I’m not being critical of what’s going on here, but (there was) a more cooperative spirit and relationship. … She is not someone that is going to rubber-stamp any idea that you walk in the door with. But I think she is a person that is willing to listen and perhaps try to work together and form a good relationship, a relationship like I’ve had in other districts where I’ve worked.

I’m not going to sit here and bash on the union or anyone else. But it was a combination of them just continuing to recruit and my getting encouragement from other national educational leaders that this might be a good fit. The philosophical match, I think, was big.

A lot of people have been talking about the salary bump that could happen for you in Houston.

It’s not about money.

Would you have gone to Houston without that kind of salary?

Yes. It’s not about money. People here in San Diego talk about what they’re paying me. Look at what they pay the superintendent in San Francisco. Look at what they pay the superintendent in a lot of small suburban districts right here in California. I get beat up here for spending $25 on a meal out of town — I don’t mean to be disrespectful about that, I really don’t, because you do want to be frugal with taxpayer dollars. But it’s not about the money. The dollars that we’re talking about in Houston are significantly less than the current superintendent makes.

So it’s not about trying to grow your career. I’m getting old. My career is grown. I didn’t come here to try to use San Diego as a stepping stone. I was North Carolina Superintendent of the Year. … I’ve been on a lot of national boards. I have a reasonable national reputation. I didn’t come here to leave here and go somewhere else.

How significant was the issue of merit pay — or the lack of it here — to making Houston more appealing?

Not a lot. Merit pay is one strategy among many to improve education and to get quality teachers in education and to get quality teachers in your most needy schools. There are a lot of strategies you could consider.

I think the unwillingness to talk about that here by our current school board and by the union is a mistake. And it flies straight in the face of Obama’s and Arne Duncan’s reform agenda. Back before Obama was elected, this whole concept of pay-for-performance and merit pay was painted by unions around the country as a Republican strategy to crush education and to endorse charters and vouchers. And all of a sudden you’ve got a very popular Democratic president saying, “This is a strategy that merits attention and we need to look at it.”

And yet here we are so entrenched and incalcitrated (he later clarified that he meant recalcitrant) that we’re not willing to consider it. I understand that. And I respected that. I work for the board — you’ve heard me say that a dozen times. Insofar as they don’t want me to do anything that is unethical or illegal, I work for the board.

And so when the new board was elected and they said, “This is something we are not going to pursue,” I said fine. And that’s where that topic stopped. But we also started looking at other reform initiatives. How we were going to spend our stimulus dollars here. Here we’re spending our stimulus dollars to reemploy teachers that we really didn’t need, versus doing really innovative and out-of-the-box kinds of things. I expressed that to the board. And at the same time the board said, “No, we don’t want to lay off teachers. We want you to use those dollars to figure out how to reemploy teachers.”

Well, we did. And we landed on a 15-to-1 class size reduction which I happen to support. So even though we didn’t go in the direction I originally recommended, we ended up with a compromise.

You felt like something good still came out of it.

Of course. And that’s the point I tried to make. The board is the board, and I work for the board, and my job as a superintendent is to present the board with as much information and as many facts as they need to make good decisions.

That’s one side of the job. The other side of the job is to provide leadership and to be creative and innovative. Education has to change. It cannot remain the same. If it does we’re going to continue to look back five years from now and 60,000 San Diego Unified school district children still will not be proficient in reading. It causes me great pause when I don’t think enough people are concerned about that. And it bothers me.

How has your experience in San Diego impacted your views about how school reform happens — or has it? Running into the kinds of disagreements that you’ve talked about — does that change your theory about how you move beyond that and create school reform?

No. School reform is a collaborative effort. It takes a lot of people. You can’t just cram it down people’s throat. That’s been tried here in San Diego and it didn’t work. Trying to be more collaborative and working with people, I think, is the answer. We’ve done that since I’ve been here.

You get accused by the union and you get accused by some others that you’re being top down — that’s ridiculous. To create reform you do have to have top-down leadership and bottom-up leadership.

Now, one of the dilemmas is sometimes — when you have a school in a very impacted neighborhood where parents speak little or no English and we as a central staff are not providing the parental outreach to help parents understand how to navigate the system, and you couple that with a young inexperienced principal and young inexperienced teachers and you start asking them how to build that rocket ship, and they don’t have the expertise.

So you do have to come in and provide that support to them. Not telling them what to do. Sharing with them, “Look at this research study. Look at what worked at this elementary school. Look at what worked over here across town.” That’s a lot different than our saying, “You’ve got to do this, this and this.”

Having said that, there are things in an organization this size that need some continuity. We do not have a uniform literacy program here. It’s hit and miss. Kids move from school to school here quite a bit. They can walk out of one school and go to another school and then three weeks later go to another school and not see a reading program or a literacy program that is similar. It’s very hard for those children to adjust.

I’m not advocating going and buying one off the shelf. But I do think that our teachers and our central staff and our universities around us and some nationally known experts are good enough to come together and work as a team and work on a program. …That, to me, makes common sense.

I interviewed with the Houston board and we were talking about trying to help struggling schools improve. … They said, “Well, how do you feel about bringing in outside consultants?” and I said, “Well, if you have internal capacity, that’s where you start. But I don’t ever hesitate to bring in — and pay well — people who can help us grow and help children.”

That’s a philosophical difference with our board. Our board here does not believe in bringing in outside consultants. And their attitude is, “You’ve hired someone, they should know what to do.” And I smile because attorneys — who are professionals — have to go back for [training] all the time. Now, I don’t believe you just throw millions of dollars at consultants. But I do believe if there’s an area where your staff doesn’t have the expertise, you need to go find it, and you need to find the best that you can find.

What change that you’ve made do you most hope will last beyond your time here?

Certainly the budget crisis in California has really had an impact on what we’ve done here. And it’s not all bad.

We would never have been able to reorganize this central office to the degree we have. We cut out 350 positions. And I don’t think that most boards would have had the political will to sit by and watch us do that. … And so as a result, there’s no question in my mind — I hear it almost every day — how much more responsive our central team is becoming to the schools.

I was also on the telephone Monday with a big newsletter and we were talking, (Chief Information and Technology Officer) Darryl LaGace and I, about our plan of putting in [digital whiteboards] and cameras and voice enhancement technology and 24 to 30 laptop computers in all 3rd through 12th grade classrooms within the next four to five years. There’s no one else in this country doing that. No one. And they were just blown away.

I hope that will stay. I hope San Diego Unified will become known as the technology innovators of the country. Our virtual high school. What we’ve done with the credit recovery program at our high schools. That’s already being emulated by school districts across the country. And I hope that will be here.

I hope the central office cultural shift into being a true service center, versus being a bureaucratic center that tells and controls, will last. I think that will be here as long as we can keep some of the key leaders that we have in place and as long as they are not micromanaged into not being able to do their jobs.

That’s something that the board is working on. They’re committed, I think, to trying to stay away from that. Even with a small board — and this board is small, I think it’s too small for an urban district, that’s just my own opinion — the size of the board lends itself to board members who come in and walk into (spokesman) Bernie Rhinerson’s office and say, “Here’s a project that I want you to work on.”

They think they can come in and talk about an idea. And they get angry sometimes or pop back at me and say, “Your people should tell us if they don’t have time. They should tell us if they’re too busy.” And I say, “You’re a board member. They’re not going to say that to you.”

We are so lean now that these folks are in here, if you come here at 6:30, 7 o’clock in the morning, there’s cars in the parking lot. You leave here at 6:30, 7 o’clock at night — there’s cars in the parking lot. … It wasn’t like that when I came to work here. The culture of the central office has changed, but because we’re also thinner, the workload has increased. So we have to be cognizant of that workload. If someone comes in and overlays a project on a team member, it just throws everything off.

What advice would you give to the next superintendent for San Diego Unified?

Do all you can to get the adults here to focus on children and not on adult issues. The culture here is different than anywhere I’ve ever been. Work hard to develop a relationship with the different unions, particularly the teacher organization, but don’t sell your soul. This is about children. And while adults and adult issues are important — we never want to mistreat anyone, everyone needs to be treated with dignity and respect, you need to make sure that people’s due process rights are not violated — this is about children. My advice would be, don’t ever, ever forget that.

What do you think it will take to make that shift happen? Do you think there is anything you could have done differently to push San Diego Unified further in that direction?

I certainly have flaws. I can look back and say, if I had done this differently, would it have mattered? Maybe it would have. I don’t know. I know that (former Superintendent) Carl Cohn — and I have great respect for Carl — Carl did everything he could do, including giving a huge teacher raise with no way to pay for it, and I’m not sure that relationship changed a lot there.

I don’t want to blame any individual. I don’t want to blame any union. I think it’s part of the ethos of this community. This type for relationship goes back 15, 20 years. It’s going to take a bold, creative, daring leader on the other side of that equation to have any chance for this to change. And I’m not saying that to be critical of the current president, because I have a lot of respect for her in a lot of ways. But it’s going to take a desire from that end. It’s going to take a risk taker as far as building trust is concerned.

(I later asked Grier through e-mail to clarify which president he was talking about and he said it was teachers union President Camille Zombro. He added this: “Ms. Zombro is a bold, creative, daring leader. To imply otherwise would not be fair or accurate. The resolution has to center around the teacher’s union president, the superintendent, and the board willing to take significant risks to ensure trust. It will require all three. Anything less will not work.”)

I worry about this thing called “maintenance of standards” that they’re pushing so hard for. I’m not trying to be bullheaded about that. I just see how problematic it’s been in other organizations. I have recommended to the board that this is something I don’t think you should do. But there are people on the board that are convinced that this is something you should allow into a teachers union contract.

That’s a decision the board has to make. If I were here and they decided to do that, I would work as diligently as I could to make sure we abided by that agreement. I’ve never been one to break a contract.

— Interview by EMILY ALPERT

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