What We Know About San Diego Unified’s Superintendent Search

Education

The Learning Curve: What We Know About San Diego Unified’s Superintendent Search

We don’t know whether board members will pick a homegrown educator again, but we do know it would be in keeping with their philosophy of how to run a school district.

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San Diego Unified Board President Richard Barrera speaks during a press conference at Encanto Elementary. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In the coming weeks, the search for San Diego Unified’s new superintendent will begin to truly escalate for the first time since former Superintendent Cindy Marten was appointed to the No. 2 spot at the U.S. Department of Education in May.

A series of town halls is set to begin in the coming weeks (the dates are nearly finalized) that will give community members a chance to talk about what they want in the next superintendent.

Those conversations are sure to be heated. Many people in the Black community don’t trust district leaders to do right by them. And several prominent Black San Diegans – including Francine Maxwell of the local NAACP and former mayoral candidate Tasha Williamson – are frequently outspoken in their criticism of the school board during public forums.

Williamson and Maxwell were no fans of Marten – nor current school board leaders like Richard Barrera who helped put her in power.

Back in 2013, many were critical of the process that led to Marten’s appointment. Marten was a well-known elementary school principal who could be counted on to advocate for students in the public spotlight like few other principals. Barrera had known for some time that he wanted her in the superintendent role. He believed she could play the public part of district figurehead, as a superintendent must, and had the administrative and educational chops to lead the district.

Marten was a bold and unorthodox choice – so board members decided to hire her in a closed session meeting right after the previous superintendent announced he would step down.

That decision faced much blowback, since it was made with no public input.

“When we appointed Cindy in the way we did, we knew people would be frustrated and there would be resentment,” Barrera told me. “I’m a community organizer, I get that. And because of [the way we did it] I do think there will be some people that will always believe our decision has already been made [this time] and this is all performative. My honest response is that it would have been performative if we’d had an open process with Cindy. And the fact we’re doing it now shows we’re genuine.”

The process, at least, looks much different this time around.

The board appointed a 46-person committee of community members to help choose the next superintendent. The committee has met several times already and chosen a non-profit education research and advocacy group, the National Center on Education and the Economy, to lead the town halls.

The group won’t, however, play a role in headhunting the next superintendent. Some bemoaned that decision at the time it was made.

School districts should use hiring firms, so they can find out what good candidates might be out in the world, but not necessarily wanting to change their job, Dan Domenech, the executive director of the national School Superintendents Association, told the Union-Tribune.

“That’s not the kind of position you want to sit back and get applications for,” Domenech said. “You basically want a head-hunter.”

For those inclined to see it that way, the decision not to hire a search firm might look like evidence the process is already cooked. But if that’s true, it’s also a great way to invite community turmoil should the school board not listen to the input community members will provide in upcoming virtual and in-person town halls.

The superintendent search committee will narrow all applications for the position down to 10 this fall, the U-T reported. Then the school board will narrow that list to three finalists, from which the new superintendent will be chosen – by the board, not the committee.

Barrera acknowledged some community groups, such as the teachers union or others, may already have a preferred candidate in mind, but, for his part, he said he doesn’t have a preset notion of who he wants to fill the job.

Here’s what we know about the philosophy of the San Diego Unified school board: Its members believe in the concept of “community schools,” a theory of education that holds schools should be cornerstones of their community, providing not just an education, but also health and social services.

It is antithesis to the idea of some charter backers that creating competition among schools is the way to a better education system.

Marten articulated what you might consider a spinoff of the community schools theory back in 2013 during her first state of the district address. All the solutions to the district’s problems – from disproportionate suspension rates to the achievement gap – were “right here at home,” she said.

That’s what board members believed when they hired her too – that they didn’t have to go looking far afield for the most innovative new superintendent in the country, but that someone at home, someone with the necessary institutional knowledge, already had the right skills to lead the district.

In some ways, their bet on Marten paid off. Not only did she stay in her role as superintendent for seven years, she was then appointed to a high-profile job as deputy secretary of education. San Diego Unified had been plagued by a revolving door of superintendents for several years prior to her appointment.

But during her tenure the achievement gap between rich and poor students, as well as White students and students of color, also remained stark. And the disproportionate suspension of Black students she spoke of addressing during her first year stayed relatively unchanged.

We don’t know whether board members will pick a homegrown educator again, but we do know it would be in keeping with their philosophy of how to run a school district.

What We’re Writing

Clarification: This post has been updated to reflect that the National Center on Education and the Economy is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy.

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