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A small group of school officials looks grimly over stacks of spreadsheets in a conference room. The whiteboard lists the sum that San Diego Unified has to cut from its budget — $93 million. And Phil Stover is talking about a baobab tree he once saw in Africa.
“Kids sat with slates and chalk” underneath the tree, he is saying. “And I’m telling you, those kids learned to read and write.”
San Diego Unified has to get closer to the baobab than it is now, Stover says. It must pare back on its scattered offices and its thousands of employees, who are all anxious about what happens in this room. They must decide what the absolute basics are to run schools. And anything they don’t choose could be cut.
Stover is an unusual man in an unusual job. He was first hired in 2006 as a consultant to revamp maintenance and operations in the district, but was rehired again and again and given a rapidly expanding set of duties, reorganizing offices from food services to finance and scrounging up new, sometimes disputed savings.
He gained the trust of the new school board, which dubbed him its “independent budget analyst.” And when Chief Special Projects Officer Bill Kowba was tapped as interim superintendent, Stover got the job that Kowba vacated.
Now Stover is a crucial player in the plan to revamp the San Diego Unified budget. Instead of choosing what to cut, the school board opted to remake the budget from scratch. The work is messy, subjective and counterintuitive. Stover calls it “unknown territory,” and his job is to guide the district through it.
“They all think I’m nuts,” he said, “because I think it’s going to be fun.”
Unknown territory is familiar ground for Stover, who has spent years jumping into school districts to help them work better and cheaper. His company, the Portolan Group, restructures and streamlines the nuts-and-bolts side of schools — the buses that bring children, the cafeterias that feed them. The question is whether he has the chops for this new challenge.
“I’m not sure he’s qualified beyond the original reasons he was hired,” school board member John de Beck said. “But it doesn’t matter. He’s already there.”
Stover has outlasted two superintendents, but he’s still a temporary employee. He has lived in the same modest hotel room in Mission Valley for more than three years, regularly visiting his schoolteacher wife in Florida. San Diego Unified can terminate him the minute a new superintendent arrives so that Kowba can return to his old job. He works from Kowba’s old office, still lined with photos of Kowba and his kids.
That doesn’t bother Stover. He’s a dabbler. Raised by a Baptist preacher in Pennsylvania, he trained in a seminary and also studied education and psychology. He’s operated a Mennonite private school, driven a school bus and hunted wildebeest for missionaries in Benin. He writes poems in his down time. To help inspire the school officials sitting anxiously in the conference room, he came up with his own aphorism: “The Joys of the Journey into the Unknown are the Unknown Joys of the Journey!”
Decades ago, Stover was counseling director at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., when he first became interested in school operations, after speaking to an annual conference of Chick-fil-A managers about integrating faith and business. That put him on a speaking circuit that eventually linked him with ServiceMaster, another company with religious roots, where he ran outsourced operations for school districts and universities.
Years later he started Portolan, intending to help small districts, but ended up working with big ones like Philadelphia and Broward County, Fla. San Diego Unified first hired him under Superintendent Carl Cohn to analyze the department that oversees school maintenance.
Portolan charged nearly $200,000 and wrote a blistering report calling for an overhaul. Custodial training was “woefully inadequate,” it said. Costs were tough to track. Bill Dos Santos, then the director of maintenance and operations, denounced the report, saying Stover had only “a little insight into janitorial services.” But rank-and-file workers loved it and the board unanimously agreed.
Portolan, which includes Stover and other consultants, was paid roughly $185,000 to follow up on the recommendations over nearly two years. The company got more contracts in 2007 and 2008: $100,000 to streamline the central offices, $140,000 to keep reorganizing facilities, and $150,000 to help craft business plans for food services, transportation and other central offices.
In all, the company has earned nearly $800,000 since 2006 from San Diego Unified. It is credited with saving far more, though it’s not clear exactly how much. Stover spurred plenty of change, reshuffling nearly a dozen departments, helping to shave millions and reforming how the district works. Labor leaders, typically wary of outside consultants, have praised his work.
Bus driver and former union leader Larry Isom said Stover once asked a manager to tell him how many custodians were working at Ocean Beach Elementary. The manager gave one number. The finance department gave another number. And the school gave a third.
“He was honest,” Isom said. “He told us early on, ‘The district doesn’t know what it’s doing.’”
Isom and other fans felt Stover didn’t have a personal stake in the budget fight. His ideas were different and refreshing: Getting more kids to eat lunch, for instance, could save money. He was an outsider who knew San Diego Unified from within. He was a psychologist who understood its culture. And amid turnover in the top ranks, Stover became a relative veteran.
“He doesn’t assume that the way it’s always been done is the way it’s supposed to be done,” school board President Richard Barrera said. “He makes a real attempt to understand — what is happening?”
Becoming the independent budget analyst for the school board, a switch proposed last April by member John Lee Evans, proved awkward. The school board was already accused of meddling in everyday district business. The board already had a chief financial officer. De Beck blasted the move because the job wasn’t advertised, even though it had no extra pay. And the superintendent didn’t think Stover had the right expertise.
“He does an outstanding job if he’s dealing with maintenance, food services and transportation,” Terry Grier said. “But the longer Phil stayed, he started moving into other areas.”
With school offices under the knife, some critics were uneasy with his new roles. After being hired again for six months in July on a leaner $54,000 contract, Stover led an internal team that prodded the central office to volunteer millions in cuts. The team also recommended other, less popular cuts that weren’t adopted. Tightening the belt rarely wins anyone fans, but errors and disputes haven’t helped Stover.
For instance, his internal team recommended that San Diego Unified cut a fraud hotline and auditors who don’t handle financial issues, even though the audit director said none existed. He has also been blamed for miscalculating the potential savings of cutting magnet school busing, an incorrect estimate that was off by $6.2 million. Stover said that wasn’t his error — he merely provided the information to the board. He readily admits he’s made mistakes, but calls them fixable, “point-in-time mistakes.”
De Beck and others fret that the board relies too much on Stover. Former school board member Mitz Lee questioned whether he had become “a shadow superintendent.”
In his new role, Stover chases down sprawling questions from the school board, such as whether teachers earn more money in different geographic areas. Kowba described Stover’s role as the person who helps connect the dots, taking on projects too big for already busy managers.
So coordinating the new way of budgeting fell to Stover. Barrera knows some worry about Stover’s expertise. But for this job, Barrera said, Stover doesn’t need to be the expert on everything. He asks questions. He listens. He knows what he doesn’t know. And he never minds the unknown.
“I live in a world where all my great rides come to an end,” Stover said. “I go home. I sleep for a month. And then the phone rings and I go on to the next great challenge.”