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Even though San Diego Unified is likely to look for a single chief — not two, or four, or none as critics had feared — its search for a new superintendent is bound to be unconventional.

The school board has already waited more than four months to start the search. It hasn’t even talked much about it. Its president has touted the relatively unusual strategy of an open search, which would allow parents, teachers and community members to vet a possible chief in public.

That, in turn, could push less traditional candidates to the fore and move the district away from the polished career superintendents normally turned up by headhunters.

Talk of blowing up the whole superintendent system seems to have fizzled. Even board member John de Beck, who initially floated the idea of having four leaders instead of one, has dropped the idea for now.

But simply airing those radical ideas is a sign of just how frustrated the school board is with the superintendent churn — and its conviction that something must be different this time around, after losing its third superintendent in four years. The question is what, exactly, to do differently as they seek to replace Terry Grier. And the board hasn’t settled on an answer.

Board President Richard Barrera says the school district simply needs a new, more collaborative kind of leader who is willing to be publicly vetted; John Evans has also backed that idea. Katherine Nakamura says the problem isn’t the superintendent but the board, which needs to work better with chiefs.

And de Beck and Shelia Jackson argue that the whole superintendent system is bankrupt because it relies on a single person, who can sway their subordinates to agree even to flawed plans.

“Our leadership cannot be placed again in the hands of one person,” Jackson said.

The biggest thing they agree on is that San Diego Unified has to create a clear vision for what it wants for itself — and its superintendent — before choosing someone to carry it out.

Their goal is to get a superintendent in place by next school year, which means they need to start moving. Superintendent searches routinely take as much as half a year. Choosing Grier took more than four months — and that was when the district sought out less public input than in the past. This board wants input — and a lot of it.

Recently, San Diego Unified has gathered public input, then turned to headhunters who poach superintendents from other school districts. Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that method has grown more common over the past decade. The pool of likely superintendents has dwindled with the pressures of No Child Left Behind and the lagging economy, new stresses that fewer people are excited about shouldering.

Because fewer people are clamoring to become superintendents, outside firms are typically paid to court existing superintendents to switch jobs under a cloud of secrecy, to avoid poisoning relationships in their current school systems. Grier, for instance, dodged questions about his candidacy in Houston; Sweetwater Superintendent Jesus Gandara got into hot water when reports surfaced that he was up for a job in Austin.

And more than a decade ago, Domenech himself dropped out of an open race to lead Los Angeles schools because of the media microscope that turned to him as soon as he applied.

“It’s like me going to my wife and saying, ‘You know, I’m still committed to everything I’ve ever said to you — but I’d like to start dating,’” joked Carlsbad Unified superintendent John Roach.

Luring candidates could already be tough for San Diego Unified, its reputation bruised by the revolving door. Advocates for keeping the superintendent search under wraps, such as Nakamura, say it ensures that candidates with a track record of success in other big districts will throw their hats in.

“I’m not looking for a savior,” Nakamura said. “But I am looking for a professional.”

But Jackson has questioned the wisdom of using firms, which traffic in a limited pool of superintendents who move from place to place. She argued that they lead the schools to pick specific candidates. Ernie McCray, a retired principal and community activist, said it seems like superintendents come from a committee somewhere that sends them out to be hired by district after district.

“Maybe if more of us had a say,” McCray said, “we might find a diamond in the rough.”

Almost immediately after Grier left, Barrera said he was interested in throwing the superintendent search open, with or without a search firm, so that the public would know who the candidates were and get a chance to talk to them. If candidates were scared away by that process, Barrera argued, they probably aren’t a good match.

That goes to the heart of what might be different about this next superintendent. Because sitting superintendents, who typically climb from smaller districts to larger ones, are less likely to volunteer themselves in an open search, San Diego Unified could draw more names of nontraditional candidates, including educational veterans who aren’t famous superintendents or people outside of education entirely.

“I don’t like the idea that we go out and hire somebody with a big name who’s turned around Denver,” said Bruce McGirr, director of the principals union. “They’re just passing through. There are bigger fish than us.”

Local candidates might also have a better shot with fewer superstars crowding the field. The last time San Diego Unified picked a superintendent from within was Bertha Pendleton in 1993. Barrera openly says that he would encourage the most local candidate of all — the man now filling the job — to apply.

William Kowba, a former Navy officer who oversaw finances and business matters for San Diego Unified before being tapped as the interim chief, has little experience with curriculum or instruction. This is his second turn as the interim superintendent. The demure leader is widely respected for his integrity and commitment, but hasn’t had to put forward an independent vision for the educational side of schools.

“Teachers speak more positively about him than any superintendent we’ve had in 10 years,” said Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union. She cautioned that Kowba wasn’t necessarily their ally; he also led the school system when it nearly laid off hundreds of teachers. “But what we hear from folks is, ‘At least he’s honest.’”

Barrera said Kowba could be paired with a strong deputy superintendent who would fill the gaps in his expertise. Not everyone is convinced that will work.

“You need someone who has experience managing large organizations that has a good educational background,” said Scott Himelstein, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law. He worked for the school district under Grier. “We need someone who can bring the focus on student achievement.”

But choosing Kowba seems more and more natural the longer he holds the job. Bey-Ling Sha, a parent leader at the Language Academy, said that the school system doesn’t need an outside reformer now.

“This is not the time for highfalutin new ideas,” Sha said. “This is the time for somebody who can do math.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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