Everyone likes Bill Kowba.

That seems to be one of the few things almost all in the fractured San Diego Unified school system agree on. The superintendent has a spotless reputation and a workhorse schedule. He answers almost every email and keeps his door open. He has earned trust from staff and the board.

The only worry is Kowba may be too nice for the job. He is so skilled at defusing tensions that some critics fear he has shied away from confronting or even defining some of the district’s problems.

“I wish Bill was a little bit more of a son of a bitch,” said board member Scott Barnett, elected after Kowba was chosen. “Because you can’t run a fairly dysfunctional organization of this size without sometimes being a son of a bitch.”

Barnett is far from the only person to call San Diego Unified “dysfunctional.” The superintendent inherited a messy and plodding bureaucracy that needs cleaning up. He has to wrangle a school board criticized for micromanaging its chiefs and trying to run the school district itself.

And while everyone likes Bill Kowba, not everyone likes what Bill Kowba was hired to do. Choosing Kowba was part of a bigger shift towards decentralizing the district, letting each school seek its own path rather than embracing an overarching reform plan. New ideas have spurted mainly from the school board or activists, not the district’s chosen leader.

“They wanted someone who would make the trains run on time,” said Scott Himelstein, president of San Diegans 4 Great Schools, which wants to overhaul the school board. “They were not looking for a visionary.”

The arguments over Kowba go to the heart of what a superintendent should be: Should Kowba set the agenda for San Diego Unified? Or should he hang back and take notes? Superintendents are traditionally seen as superstars who drive reform. But after turbulent years with more traditional chiefs, many parents and teachers are relieved Kowba is listening, not littering the district with new projects.

“He may not be the most dynamic speaker. He may not be coming to the table with earth-shattering ideas. But he’s gotten folks to work together and reach a common goal,” said Michael Greenwood, who directs community support programs for the U.S. Navy, including partnerships with San Diego schools.

One year ago when he was tapped as superintendent, Kowba was seen as a balm for a bruised school district. San Diego Unified had suffered from a revolving door of superintendents — three in five years — leaving it dizzy after each hired new people, reorganized offices and started new reforms.

The last superintendent, Terry Grier, skipped town after less than a year and a half, bitterly at odds with a new board and its allies in the teachers union. The school board set out to find someone who wouldn’t try to overhaul the district again. The threat of another year of budget cuts made everyone even more wary of sudden change.

Kowba was about as stable as you could get. He was a gentle insider with a good ear, a retired Navy rear admiral who joined San Diego Unified as its finance chief five years ago and later oversaw logistics and special projects. He was already sitting as interim superintendent and had taken the helm once before.

Principals knew him. Parents liked him. And a year later, they like him even more. One San Diego Unified staffer compared working for Kowba to having a loving boyfriend after years of abusive exes.

“He doesn’t seem like he has an ego,” said Philip Liburd, a father active in the Morse and Lincoln area. “He’s receptive. He listens. If you’ve got an issue, you come talk to him.”

School board President Richard Barrera coined the term “community-based school reform” and Kowba has touted it. The push is rooted in the idea that schools figure out how to fix themselves. Classroom reforms are still in their infancy, but test scores surged in the year that Kowba served as interim superintendent.

Barrera says Kowba has been exactly what the board had hoped.

“It’s hard for me to sit here and say, ‘I’m not going to talk to you,’” Kowba said of his famously open door. “I’m in a position of public trust. I would never want to be accused of being remote and distant.”

But the question that has dogged Kowba was whether someone so nice could reel in the school board when it meddled or warn it away from bad decisions. Superintendents are supposed to take their direction from school boards. But they are the leaders who spell out issues for school boards, the public and workers, gathering up expertise from the school district staff. They tell everyone what is at stake.

School board members say Kowba often talks to them in private. Keeping disagreements out of public keeps the peace, a welcome tradeoff for many educators sick of school district drama. But it also keeps important debates out of the public eye, making it harder for the public to gauge board decisions.

“I don’t think the board just runs over Bill,” said Bruce McGirr, director of the school administrators union. “But I think Bill is a realist. He has to do what the board charges him with.”

Kowba has spoken up when he worries the school board could jeopardize its budget. One of his behind-the-scenes talks swayed Barrera to change his mind and vote to warn teachers of layoffs. He urged the school board not to cancel cuts until the budget was solid, avoiding a showdown with creditors.

The school board also handed over some powers, a big step for a meddlesome board. Kowba can now appoint principals and most managers, instead of getting them vetted by the board. School district insiders saw it as a way to cut down on political wheeling-and-dealing over principals.

Kowba hasn’t always piped up, though. Kowba wanted to maintain eight area superintendents to oversee principals and spread reforms. They were one of the building blocks behind the “clusters” of involved parents and educators in each area that Kowba has nurtured.

Yet when the board moved to trim some area superintendents to save music teachers, Kowba didn’t speak up in public about the tradeoff.

And as interim superintendent, he was publicly mum about one of the biggest and most disputed decisions the school board has made: promising future raises to its workers in exchange for concessions that saved money now.

There is one other place where Kowba has been accused of being too nice.

Labor leaders complain Kowba has been slow to whip the central offices into shape, letting shoddy managers stay in place. The school board has echoed those worries. It had long griped to Kowba about unclear information from the human resources department, so much so that it showed up on his last evaluation.

“The thing is, it shouldn’t be the board getting upset” when the central offices can’t deliver information, said Bill Freeman, president of the teachers union. “It should be Bill Kowba.”

But Freeman says that is his chief complaint about Kowba, a remarkable vote of confidence from a union leader who has fiercely criticized the school district. For him and for most people tied to the school district, the worries about whether Kowba is too nice have taken the back seat to palpable relief. Whatever their problems are, the school board and parents feel assured that Kowba will listen.

“He’s not the guy who knows it all,” said Barbara Flannery, president elect of the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs. “But he’s the guy who is going to find out.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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