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John Lee Evans

A plan first, superintendent second

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The recently announced departure of San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Terry Grier has resulted in much hand wringing among the media. Pundits are questioning why the district is not able to hold on to its superintendents.

As one of the newest members of the School Board, I believe that they are missing the point. The important issue is not who the superintendent is, but rather what San Diego Unified is doing for its students.

Recently, the district announced some substantial test score increases. Congratulations to the teachers who accomplished this in spite of changes at the superintendent and School Board level.

Superintendent Grier’s contract only requires a 30-day notice to resign. We operate in a free employment environment. He was offered a job with a bigger district in Houston and a reported compensation of $400,000 in comparison to the $269,000 that he earns in San Diego. Not a bad offer.

As a private citizen, I addressed the previous board and said that it was a mistake to search for a new superintendent without first laying out a plan for the goals and priorities of San Diego Unified. Unfortunately, the district has been in the habit of searching for a superintendent who will save us from ourselves.

I came onto the board committed to working with the superintendent appointed by the previous board. We collaborated to manage the budget debacle that worsened every day. Any taxpayer association or fiscal conservative should be proud of the savings we realized. A veteran board member said the district had been “squeezed as never before.” We cut millions of dollars out of the bureaucracy and maintained support for the students in the classroom.

But something even more dramatic unfolded. I was astounded by the practice of presenting a balanced budget at the beginning of the year and then mostly ignoring it the rest of the year. One department had budgeted $35 million and then spent $48 million without any official action. At the end of the year the “checkbook” was reconciled and the budget was re-balanced. We now insist upon frequently updated budget reports and accountability.

All the savings accomplished could not have happened if the board and Superintendent Grier had not worked closely together. We did not agree on every single issue, but the public would not be well served by a yes-board or a yes-superintendent.

San Diego Unified has tended to hobble from financial crisis to financial crisis and from one superintendent to another. It has not tended to look beyond the current year. But this year while dealing with a massive budget crisis, we have also been diligently planning reforms.

We started with a vision of what we wanted our schools to look like in 2020. We will define student achievement more broadly by including all areas of the curriculum. We want to revitalize the link between neighborhoods and schools, decrease the dropout rate by offering meaningful graduation that includes college prep and career/tech programs, individualize learning plans for each student with the latest technology and develop programs to recruit and retain the highest quality teachers.