Allegations of political influence on personnel decisions have been in the news lately. The reports target the board president, but imply that the superintendent has been coerced into taking certain actions. Even though many of the claims are patently false, the superintendent and the Board of Education have been handicapped by legal requirements that prohibit discussing confidential personnel matters. As a trustee, I will not discuss specific details that would be found in a personnel file.
As an individual board member, here are two main factors that I will address: 1) The superintendent makes all decisions regarding principal assignments and reassignments. 2) There is ample evidence that the superintendent would not take direction from an individual board member on any such decision.
We are required to address employee personnel matters in closed session and must not discuss any details revealed in that session. On multiple occasions board members have dismissed themselves from discussion of an item in which there is a potential conflict of interest. For example, the practice has been for the board member to leave the room during discussions involving the principal of the board member’s child.
The current media attention has been focused on principal assignment and reassignment. When I first joined the board all principal appointments required board approval. This resulted in a political process whereby staff could lobby board members for appointment and the superintendent was prevented from choosing the best possible candidate if the board did not approve. In March 2011 the board removed the requirement for board approval and gave full authority and responsibility to the superintendent. Our reasoning was that if we were going to hold the superintendent accountable for the performance of the district that the superintendent needed to be able to pick his or her own team. Our only requirement was that the superintendent seek input on candidates from a committee of staff, parents and other stakeholders at the school site through an orderly interview process. However, the final decision is in the hands of the superintendent. Furthermore, any decisions on removal or reassignment are completely at the discretion of the superintendent.
As part of Vision 2020 we emphasize quality leadership at school sites. As a board we have told Superintendent Cindy Marten that we want to work toward a stellar principal in every school. The staff has worked carefully on defining the specific leadership skills to be evaluated.
Since Marten was appointed superintendent, she has made principal appointments based on the needs of students. She has taken a positive approach in the growth and development of principals. Some principals have been given support by mentor principals over a period of time. She has identified other cases where an otherwise competent principal is not the right fit for a particular school. Such discussions happen over a period of time, typically about a year, and the board is kept apprised of that ongoing process. Changes have not been made precipitously. When a change is required to meet the needs of students, she has dealt with the adults in a very compassionate manner, assisting the individual in finding another path.
No matter how delicately the superintendent handles such matters, disgruntled employees and ex-employees are free to publicly characterize events in their own manner for their own purposes. Prior to the current focus on SCPA, I can recall a case in which a principal presented to staff and parents a misleading narrative about the reasons for an upcoming change and made it look like he or she was precipitously removed. The superintendent and board were unable to counter those statements due to confidentiality laws.
It should be clear to everyone that we do not have a superintendent who caves to pressure from board members. For example, at a public board meeting in June, the board president harshly criticized the superintendent (and the board) and insisted that she make a specific change to her reorganization plan. The superintendent stood by her initial recommendation and was supported by the board with a 3-1 vote. There have been numerous other public disagreements between the superintendent and the current board president in which the superintendent has stood by her decision.
Every board member has the opportunity to offer opinions and make suggestions. Every board member had had disagreements with the superintendent. But the superintendent does not need one single vote for assignments or reassignments.
While we cannot direct staff as board members, it is important to consider how we address staff members. When I first came on the board, I realized that staff members wanted to accommodate board members due to the old political order. Since then we have made a strong effort to draw a line between policy and operations. However, each board member is personally responsible for his or her own statements to staff. We must not directly or indirectly imply that we have authority over them. The superintendent herself is very clear that she only takes direction from action taken by the board as a whole in a public setting, not from any individual board member.
The board has set an ambitious Vision 2020 plan in place. I do believe that many of the seeds planted in the first six years are going to bear fruit this year. We are working toward a quality school in every neighborhood. A prime example of this was the first planning meeting of the Madison cluster this week, which had community-wide participation with principals, teachers, parents and representatives from business, industry, college, community agencies and service clubs.
John Lee Evans is vice president of the San Diego Unified Board of Education, and previously served as board president.