A Bottle With Bernie - Voice of San Diego

Education

A Bottle With Bernie

Outgoing San Diego Unified Chief of Staff Bernie Rhinerson sat down for happy hour drinks to discuss his tenure at the district.

Bernie Rhinerson is one of those unflappable dudes.

The chief of staff at the San Diego Unified School District has been in the PR business so long that he knows exactly how far to push things. He knows how to carefully answer questions so as to avoid controversy, and he knows how to quietly sidestep tricky issues altogether, steering the conversation artfully toward the positive.

So, naturally, I thought I’d get him a bit tipsy.

Rhinerson, whose retirement from the district became official June 1, started as San Diego Unified’s chief district relations officer in 2008, but his job description has become more amorphous over the years. He’s still the official spokesman for city schools, but he’s also part of the district’s senior leadership team, and as such is involved with almost every big initiative pursued by the school board.

Rhinerson agreed to sit down for an exit interview over a bottle of wine. So, at Wine Steals in Point Loma, we uncorked a bottle, ordered some appetizers and then I set about trying to make him as uncomfortable as possible.

You came in in 2008. The economy’s collapsing, the state is in the midst of cutting funding. Why choose San Diego Unified in the first place?

I didn’t see the financial nightmare coming when I took the job.

I didn’t see what was going to happen to public education over the last five years.

Had you been able to see what was coming, would you have still taken the job?

You know, I think I would have.

It has been the most rewarding job in my career, to be around educators, really smart, passionate people who love kids and what they do and helping kids.

That has just filled me up. That’s been so rewarding.

If an alien landed and said, ‘Mr. Rhinerson, you’ve got five minutes to show us how local education has been impacted by budget cuts,’ what would you show them?

Class sizes. K-3 class sizes.

When you have a population of kids that are 65 percent in poverty and 30 percent English-language learners, taking K-3 class sizes to 25, 26, 27, I think hurts education.

And that’s happening this year, right?

Yes. It’s happened.

So, the union and the school board came to an agreement that they were going to allow class sizes to increase, in exchange for teachers getting paid more, right?

Well, you’re tying the two together.

Because they’re exactly the same thing.

There’s only so much money. If that money wasn’t going toward paying raises, it could be going toward keeping class sizes low.

What do you think is the main priority, in terms of making kids learn better? Is it giving a teacher a bigger paycheck, or making sure class sizes are low?

I’m not an educator. I don’t want to make judgments about what’s best for kids. I don’t know the research. Educators know that.

I think the Board of Education has placed a priority on keeping teachers in the classroom, in front of kids, at the lowest possible class sizes that we can, in a collaborative environment.

Would you acknowledge that that hit a breaking point this year?

Well, I think with the real estate sales …

But those aren’t enough, right? Class sizes have gone up.

Slightly.

It could’ve been much more chaotic, much worse, had that focus been different.

You make choices, you make compromises. The board, which I have supported, said every year’s important for a kid.

If we can get our kids to another year, and Prop. 30 passes, the revenue increases, we get more efficient, whatever, let’s keep the teachers in front of kids with the lowest possible class sizes.

You say that, but three years ago, the board decided to hand out a whole slew of raises.

Collective bargaining is give-and-take, and concessions.

At that point in time, teachers gave up five days of paid work; they gave up almost 3 percent of their salary to get a promise of raises in the future. They got the kids through another year without big layoffs.

And our teachers hadn’t had a raise in years.

They had a raise in 2008, two years earlier.

Well, that was before I came.

They had had a raise, though.

Well, that was five years ago now. Have you had a raise in five years?

Sure, but now you’re repeating another canard.

Most teachers in the district get raises every single year, just for staying alive. My wife does.

Yes, I’ve had a raise, maybe one a year, but so have most teachers.

As a communications person, don’t you think that we should start to be a bit more frank about terms like that? Why is an across-the-board raise any different (from) a step-and-column raise? They’re both raises.

I’m not going to argue about the system in California.

Just in terms of communication, then?

Well, another thing that’s not communicated is where our teachers fall in terms of overall salary, and how they’re valued in society.

I personally think that our teachers here, compared to Finland or wherever, are not valued, and we should be paying them a lot more.

We’re hiring the bottom 25 percent of the graduating class to be teachers in America.

That’s data I’ve read. In Finland, they hire the top 25 percent.

Is the profession valued by society? Is it a wage that you can raise a family on? When you know you’re going to top out at $80,000 a year after 17 years of step increases or whatever?

For working eight months of the year.

Or 10. Right, whatever.

I think teachers work a lot more than that. They’re on the couch at night grading papers. That 10 months is an intense period.

My point is that I don’t begrudge teachers getting those step increases, because overall, I don’t think teachers are paid enough.

Isn’t also part of the reason that we’re not attracting the best and brightest because we have almost no system to push people who aren’t good at their jobs out of the profession?

No, no. I don’t think that’s related.

In terms of the way we evaluate teachers, 99 percent of our teachers are great at their job. That cannot be statistically true.

I can’t debate the system we have; all I can do is explain where we are.

To get into that whole debate of teacher evaluation, well, I can’t really debate that.

Let’s talk about Superintendent Bill Kowba.

When Kowba announced he was retiring, a lot of people were saying he’s such a great guy and he’s done all this amazing stuff, and I challenged them.

I like Bill, but I don’t know what his fundamental push was, what his big achievement was. He doesn’t seem to have put his own stamp on this district.

Am I being unfair?

Yeah, I think you’re being unfair.

The amazing accomplishment was to guide the district through the worst fiscal crisis ever.

If Bill is nothing, he’s a consummate manager who organizes groups of people to accomplish tasks.

He’s extremely organized and very good at motivating the people who work under him. So just leading the preparation of budgets and getting us through is a huge accomplishment. We could’ve fallen apart, and that’s the stability the board looked for when they hired him, and they got that.

Isn’t Kowba’s big thing that he’s managing the district and he’s going to take his orders from the school board and do what he’s told?

Doesn’t every superintendent do that?

No. Terry Grier didn’t do that.

And he’s not here.

I think superintendents that survive and bring stability are able to work with the board that they have in a good fashion, and Bill’s been able to do that.

What’s the difference between stability and being a lackey?

I would never see him as a lackey because behind closed doors, Bill can argue with the best of them.

But he’s a gentleman. He’s a servant-leader and a very civil, ethical man. But he can argue and debate with the best of them.

Interview conducted and edited by Will Carless.

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