Busy at the Top: Questions for Terry Grier - Voice of San Diego

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Busy at the Top: Questions for Terry Grier

Saturday, May 24, 2008 | Budget cuts have dominated Superintendent Terry Grier‘s whirlwind three months at San Diego Unified School District, which passed in a blur of meetings, workshops and school visits. The North Carolina transplant plunged into overseeing California’s second-largest school district in March, when San Diego Unified braced for an $80 million cut.

Months later, a revised budget has brightened the financial outlook for San Diego schools. Grier hopes that fewer teachers can be dismissed than originally planned. But he insists that the central offices should stay lean and argues that the entire district should be leaner.

In the inevitable comparisons between Grier and his predecessors, Alan Bersin and Carl Cohn, school staffers describe Grier’s approach as less controlling than Bersin’s, less laissez-faire than Cohn’s. The teachers union bristled at his public comments about seniority-based layoffs, but trustees are pleased by his energy, enthusiasm and ideas.

For now, the bold reforms that characterized his career in North Carolina, such as merit pay for teachers, have only been rumored in San Diego. To many teachers and parents, the superintendent remains an unknown, seen flitting from school to school, from one meeting to the next. His days often begin at sunrise and end after midnight, each blending into the next. During an interview, he wondered aloud whether it was Thursday or Friday.

“It just starts to run together like that,” he said.

Grier is short on time and long on thoughts, so we interviewed him first in person and followed up via e-mail.

You’ve spent a lot of time visiting schools. What have your visits taught you?

Have they changed your perception of which problems and issues are most important for San Diego Unified?

The visits have reinforced a lot that I’ve known over the years. You have focus meetings with teachers, and you’ll have focus group meetings with students, and sometimes you get very different perceptions of what the school is like and what’s going on and what needs to change for this school to get better. What it’s reinforced to me that students or teachers look through the lens of a school very differently. I find that to be fascinating.

I’ve had students say to me, “Why do my teachers and principals think that I’m stupid because I’m an inner-city kid?” You probe and ask, “Well, why do you think they feel that way?”

“Well, because our courses aren’t very challenging. We only offer three or four Advanced Placement classes here. As a 9th grader here you can only take physical science. At La Jolla or somewhere else they offer 20-plus AP courses. You can take chemistry or physics or whatever in the ninth grade. Why is it different here?”

You sit down and talk to teachers at the school, and they’ll talk about the kids coming from middle schools not prepared and not focused, etc. etc.

How accurate both of those perceptions are for the entire school is hard to tell. So you try to balance and weigh that out. But at that particular high school I’ve already told the principal: You will offer 10 Advanced Placement courses in your school next year, and I expect there to be 25 children at a minimum in each class.

I believe in high expectations. Children should not be excluded from access to rigor based on what part of this community they live in. Advanced Placement courses are not for the elite. They’re for the prepared.

Students [also] wanted access to more languages. I was very surprised by that. At one of our high schools that has several small schools within the school, kids were complaining that they were told they couldn’t take a foreign language because it was not within their school. And one of the kids said, “Well, why don’t we just have a foreign language department over here, and the kids from all the small schools can go and take that class?”

And I said, “Well, gosh, that sounds like a reasonable request.”

You talk to the teachers and they say, “No, we can’t do that, because it’s not in each school. We need to keep the schools separate.” So you say, “OK, slow down.”

I’m not being critical of our teachers — I think they’re doing a good job. But that’s just an example of how they looked at the world. The kids were looking at it the way kids look at things — they look at the possibilities, not the road blocks. The teachers were looking at the why-nots and the kids were looking at the hows.

Why undertake your reorganization of the school district now, while layoffs are still underway? Do you run the risk of alienating employees?

You have to communicate why you’re doing this now. (In response to budget cuts) we eliminated 198 central office positions. We are not going to refill those slots. If we get more money from the governor, those 198 positions aren’t coming back. We want that money directed out towards the schools.

When you make that kind of drastic cuts, you leave huge holes in this department, that department, so you move things into different divisions. All of the credentialed administrators that work down here were also issued pink slips. The (teachers) union doesn’t talk about that. The paper doesn’t cover that much. But all of these employees down here got pink slips as well.

So now when we reorganize, we have different departments, different department heads and job descriptions, because we’re leaner now. I thought it was only ethical and fair that everyone get a chance to interview for those jobs. And if they’re not successful, they have an opportunity to interview elsewhere.

I have a letter of resignation (from an employee) right here on my desk that I opened before you walked in the door. I fully understand. I do. But the key question then is, do we wait to fill those positions and reorganize in July? …

You have to have the right structure to ensure accountability and oversight. Right now we have six area superintendents, and they’re all supervising 40 schools each. Well, how does one person accurately evaluate 40 school principals? I don’t think you can accurately do that. And at the same time, I’m getting constant calls and complaints in here from parents, teachers and school leaders about how certain school administrators are mistreating parents, mistreating students, mistreating members of their organizations. You don’t want a person supervising 40 schools.

The budget crisis seems to be getting better this year, but appears to be a long-term problem. How can San Diego Unified resolve that? Where else can we find funding? Is the Center on Policy Initiatives right — are there pockets of money that have gone unspent in this crisis?

After analyzing the Governor’s May revise, we still have to cut $53 million from an already under-funded school district. Fifty-three million is better than $80 million in cuts, but I’m not sure that the budget picture will get much better. The overwhelming bulk of our funding comes from the state and is based on average daily student attendance. We can increase revenue by increasing student attendance — a 1 percent increase in attendance generates $6 million in revenue — by decreasing our dropout rate — we currently have 10,000 freshman and 6,000 seniors — and by attracting students from private schools and from outside of our district to our schools.

After carefully reviewing our budget, we have found one-time money that could be spent for a variety of purposes. These are essentially funds that are left in school accounts at year’s end. Traditionally, the district has allowed those funds to be carried over to the next year and be paired with new allocations to purchase “large ticket items” for our schools. Other excess dollars have flowed into the fund balance at year’s end. If one-time funds are spent on re-occurring expenses, what do we use to pay those bills next year, or in the future?

Change is a tough pill to swallow for schools. What’s your strategy for implementing change and getting schools to swallow it?

It just takes a while. What exacerbates this is a bit is the fact that you had a very accomplished superintendent (Carl Cohn) that I have a great deal of respect for that was only here a short period of time. This challenge is real, I can promise you that. This is real.

People have said, “You didn’t have to take this job. You didn’t even have to be here until July 1. Why come now? You could have passed this (budget crisis) along to others to deal with.” Well, that’s not my way. That’s just not who I am. Maybe that’s a message that people understand. I’m not afraid of hard tasks. I want to be here for the long term. And it takes a while to get to know people. Many times we may find ourselves disagreeing — I don’t think that means we have to be disagreeable during that process.

The teachers union has made some sharp statements about your actions thus far. How do you foresee your relationship with the union?

Frankly, I hope it grows stronger. I had a good relationship with the union in North Carolina. Mark Jewell, the union president there, I consider a friend and a professional colleague. We didn’t agree on everything. Mark knew how to disagree.

Relationships are two-sided. I want to have a strong relationship, and I hope the teachers union does here. But a strong relationship doesn’t mean that every time you do something that someone else disagrees with, they react in a different way than perhaps I would.

I hope it can grow strong.

I’m going to continue to focus on children. I care about our teachers. I didn’t want to issue any layoff notices. But the Board of Education and I as a superintendent have different responsibilities than union leaders do. They care about their membership — as do we. I would say that I can’t think of anyone including the union president or their officers that care any more deeply about teachers than I do. But at the end of the day, this school system has to be financially stable. And if it’s not, the school board and the superintendent is accountable, not the teachers union leadership. If the state takes this district over, that’s because of the board not being financially responsible, not the union being financially responsible or not. I think that’s a big difference.

And sometimes because of those different roles you can have different opinions about how you tackle the challenges. I certainly welcome their input and welcome their advice. That’s been shortcoming so far. What we get is, “I don’t want to be part of telling you how to do this, or do that.” But we’re going to continue to meet, we’re going to continue to talk and seek advice and counsel. And whether that’s forthcoming will be their decision, not ours.

I have not come here wanting to fight with anyone. We’ve got a school system here that I’m very proud of some of the accomplishments. We also have a school system where only 40 percent of the children are proficient in reading and writing. … Now, you’ve not heard me blame anyone for that. And it doesn’t make any sense to sit here and blame. What I do want to do is reach out – to our parents, to our business community, to our faith community, to our entire support system. Our staff, our teachers, our principals. … The quality of life in San Diego 10 years from now will be a direct reflection of the jobs we’ve done this year, with our high schoolers. I really believe that.

I can’t help what [the teachers union is] going to say. They are in a hard position. They are seeing their members laid off, they are seeing the state in a budget crisis … It’s very simple to say, “Don’t lay off anyone.” But what happens when you don’t lay off anyone? … If we have an $80 million deficit, how would you suggest that we recoup that? That’s our problem. But how are we going to solve that problem? …

I don’t dislike anyone over there (in the teachers union.) In fact, I have great respect and admiration for all of them. They find themselves in a hard position. You’ve not heard me say some of the things about them that you’ve heard them say about me. Nor do I think you will.

When you were selected as superintendent, you cited dropout rates as an issue close to your heart. What are your concrete plans to reduce dropouts, moving forward?

Students drop out or are pulled out of school for a variety of reasons. Therefore, we must implement a variety of strategies to address the problem. There is no question that a high school diploma is key to a student’s future. Eighty-five percent of African-American students who drop out of school are incarcerated by age 25. Next year, some of our new strategies will include: placing a graduation coach in each of our high schools; piloting a ninth grade attendance incentive program; piloting a program for ninth graders that substitutes community service for out of school suspension; adding one or two middle college high schools on college campuses to serve disconnected high school students; and implementing a new small school for over-aged middle school students. 

Is there anything that people don’t know about you, that you wish they did?

Yeah, I’m a pretty nice guy. It’s true.

— Interview by EMILY ALPERT
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