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The three candidates vying to become the next San Diego Unified superintendent have one key thing in common: None are raring to blow up the school district.

San Diego Unified has made it clear that it wants a leader who will work with the existing structure and leaders in the school district, rather than one who will upend it. That decision comes after suffering from the dizzying effects of a revolving door of three superintendents in five years, each of whom has spun it in a new direction and brought in new employees, new structures or new reforms.

Big name candidates are widely believed to have turned away, worried that their current employers will know they are shopping for another job, because the board is airing finalists’ names. Board members such as Richard Barrera say that’s fine — they don’t want a ladder climber anyhow.

Other candidates were probably deterred by the school board’s reputation for micromanaging, deserved or not, said former San Diego Unified Superintendent Tom Payzant.

The result is that the candidates who did emerge have lower profiles and are keen to work with the board on its terms.

They include a longtime educator now working at a nonprofit, a veteran superintendent and a military man with a business bent. These candidates still want schools to change, but they want to help San Diego Unified carry out its existing mission — not rewrite it.

“These are career administrators who are coming from a pretty pragmatic place,” said teachers union President Camille Zombro. “What San Diego Unified needs is not a flashy highfalutin superintendent.”

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If San Diego Unified is turbulent, Hayward Unified is even more so.

Dale Vigil led the midsized district south of Oakland when it weathered a bitter teachers strike over the size of teacher raises. It lasted more than a week, and Vigil was lambasted by teachers for taking a vacation in the middle of it.

Vigil talks about “distributive leadership,” the idea that everyone should share in decisions. He was quick to distinguish it from mere delegating. But to Hayward Unified employees like Jeff Bellaire, who leads a union of school office employees, Vigil delegated too much and wasn’t involved in the district.

Test scores bobbled under Vigil’s watch. Budget problems have persisted after he left, spurring talk of a state takeover. Hayward residents are split on whether or not Vigil was to blame.

“God could come down and wasn’t going to get improvement,” said Brian Schott, interim president and CEO of the Hayward Chamber of Commerce. “It was an unfair challenge to work with.”

Vigil agreed to leave Hayward schools last December under a buyout agreement with the school board — the second in his career after the Santa Rosa schools did the same a decade ago. He said simply that school boards change and often want “their own superintendent.”

As an educator, he is strongly focused on English learners and passionate about engaging parents in schools. He put that same emphasis on parent and community involvement in Hayward.

“You want their fingers on your chest … demanding the best education for their children,” Vigil said at a Thursday forum. “When you invite them in, give them a meaningful role, they will participate.”

Ed Mullins, a Hayward business operator who met him in a group that brings together community leaders with educators, said Vigil was open and easy to reach. He was widely credited with nudging voters to approve new money for school buildings, a rarity for Hayward.

Vigil is also familiar with San Diego, where he worked as an area superintendent a dozen years ago, and calls it un paraiso — a paradise. He earned praise here for being a collaborative leader.

Monroe Clark Middle School Principal Tom Liberto was a vice principal under his supervision and called him “a role model for me, the kind of leader I wanted to be.”

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Debbra Lindo’s career has followed a winding road through schools, first as an English and drama teacher in San Diego, then as an administrator around the Bay Area, then overseeing a group of middle schools in Oakland Unified.

She then took the helm of an Oakland nonprofit, College Track, which prepares disadvantaged teens for college with extra classes and activities after school.

Because she has held so many different jobs within education, Lindo argued she can better conquer the “often glacial infrastructure of school districts.” She even had a stint at a software company.

But among all her jobs, Lindo was best known as the principal who helped break up a tough but storied Oakland high school into small schools.

Splitting up Castlemont High was controversial: Lindo ran into stern opposition from alumni and teachers who complained the change was done on the cheap. Fans say the schools are now more personalized and welcoming, but test scores are still low there today.

“She would appear collaborative,” said Bill Balderston, a retired teacher who worked under Lindo. “But she was determined to do what she wanted to do.”

Yet Lindo won over other critics such as Alice Spearman, a parent who now sits on the Oakland Unified school board. Spearman said Lindo had an unusual gift for working well with people.

“She’s not afraid to do what needs to be done,” said Denise Saddler, who oversees a group of elementary schools in Oakland Unified. “Believe me — Oakland baptizes you for that!”

College Track says that all of its students graduate high school and most are admitted to college. Under her watch, the nonprofit doubled in size, opening up new sites in San Francisco and New Orleans.

But even after expanding, College Track has a $4.2 million budget, while San Diego Unified has a budget of roughly $2 billion. College Track serves roughly 1,000 students in four different locations. San Diego Unified has more than 130,000 students and more than 200 schools.

“She looks like a nice lady,” said Bruce McGirr, director of the administrators association in San Diego. “But is she ready to step into this mess?”

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Bill Kowba has been in the middle of that mess since last September.

In his second stint as San Diego’s interim superintendent, Kowba has proven popular with employees and parents, as calming as a warm glass of milk in an often turbulent school system. Employees praise his honesty. He is a familiar face.

“I’ve come to know the staff, the stakeholder groups, our priorities, our problems,” Kowba said.

Kowba, a retired Navy rear admiral, is most savvy about the business side of the school district. Though he has learned the “alphabet soup” of tests and acronyms used by educators, instruction is his weak side. He readily admits he would need to be paired with a strong academic leader. Some critics are unsure whether he can stand up to the school board on issues of teaching and learning.

“Where does he stand?” asked Adrienne Schere, a retiree who attended the Thursday night forum. “What are his principles?”

The school board told Kowba in March that he had focused too little on instruction. But his insider knowledge of the school district is an automatic advantage in a district that is hungry for stability.

Whoever is chosen will the fourth permanent superintendent to lead San Diego Unified in five years, following former border czar Alan Bersin, veteran superintendent Carl Cohn and Terry Grier, who left San Diego Unified for Houston schools last fall after butting heads with the teachers union and the newly elected board.

The school board plans to make its decision by the end of the month.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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