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Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007 | With an escalating series of scandals and controversies casting a shadow over his administration, San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Carl Cohn decided Wednesday that it was time to call it quits.
But shortly after Cohn announced his surprise decision to retire at the end of 2007, school leaders said the superintendent’s exit would do little to quell the growing division among the school system’s elected trustees about how — and who — should govern the state’s second-largest school district.
In a letter delivered to board members Tuesday, a day before a special board meeting, Cohn said his upcoming 62nd birthday marked the right time to return to his private consulting business and his retirement.
“Now I know that some are arguing that age 60 is the new 40, but I’m not feeling that way,” he wrote.
However, both Cohn’s critics and supporters at the district say the real reason for the superintendent’s decision to leave little more than halfway through his four-year contract was a series of public clashes with elected trustees about where the school board’s authority to set district policy ended and where the superintendent’s prerogative to manage the day-to-day operation of the school system began.
“While it’s a loss, I agree with his decision, because you can’t have someone who is constantly undermining your authority at every turn. And that’s what some board members have done,” said board member Shelia Jackson, who blamed fellow trustee John de Beck for publicly “berating” the superintendent and his management style. “I guess you can only beat up a person so much. A person of [Cohn’s] stature doesn’t have to put up with it.”
Cohn did not return several calls for comment.
In an unusually public rebuke of the superintendent and his staff in June, a majority of the school board voted down the district’s proposed $2.2 billion budget just days ahead of the state’s budget deadline. In explaining their decision, trustees said they had first received a copy of the spending plan just days before the vote and were left with too little time decipher the incomprehensible document.
Then, last month, the board forced out one of Cohn’s top lieutenants, Chief Administrative Officer José Betancourt, who pleaded guilty in July to violating federal conflict-of-interest laws in his work for a defense contractor. Some board members had criticized Betancourt for keeping the trustees in the dark about key aspects of the district’s operations, including the formulation of its budget.
After the district’s annual test scores were released in August, board member Katherine Nakamura suggested Cohn would receive less-than-stellar marks on his annual evaluation.
In the wake of the budget vote, Cohn criticized the district’s elected leaders for attempting to micromanage the school system, something he said violated the no-meddling clause in his contract.
“We basically started thinking for ourselves a little bit more, and that may have caused him to say that I can’t get where I want to with this board,” de Beck said.
Several board members said Cohn had previously threatened to quit over the conflict, and that Wednesday’s special meeting was called partly to see whether the superintendent would follow through on his latest plan to leave, which he first announced privately to board members last week.
“That’s why we waited until today’s closed session to make it public,” de Beck said. “The board needed to have assurances that he really intended to go. Because you can’t keep crying wolf, wolf, wolf, and then say, ‘I changed my mind.'”
District leaders said Cohn’s successor would inherit a board deeply divided about its role and vision for the school system.
“That problem isn’t going to go away just because the superintendent is going to go away,” Jackson said.
On Wednesday, school board members began to lay down plans for San Diego Unified after Cohn, announcing that the same consultant who had recruited the superintendent to the district would lead the search for his successor. Under the firm’s contract with the district, it will have to do the work free of charge, because Cohn decided to leave less than two years after arriving in San Diego.
However, board members said Wednesday’s discussion did little to move them toward agreement about common goals for the school system and about how to share their authority to achieve them with a new superintendent.
“I think the board has no clue about what they want, and I think that’s part of the problem,” de Beck said.
Though school leaders agree that Cohn will leave San Diego Unified better than when he found it, they offered a mixed evaluation of his two years at the district.
“I think he has moved the district forward in terms of morale, in terms of cohesiveness,” Nakamura said. “But I have some reservations in terms of academic achievement.”
While trustees praised the superintendent for improving working conditions at the district’s central office and its schools after the controversial reign of his predecessor, Alan Bersin, they said it was unclear how much of Cohn’s plans would survive his departure. Already, some at the district predicted that Cohn’s announcement will cause the school system to postpone a massive bond measure it planned to bring to voters in November 2008.
One unknown variable that remains is how many of Cohn’s proteges will stay — the graduate students he mentored and former staffers from his days at Long Beach Unified. Cohn finished assembling his full team only recently; the district appointed a new curriculum chief several months ago. The superintendent’s decision to leave in December means the school system could enter into a new transition period just as it exits its last one.
“I think you’re going to get some natural attrition,” Nakamura said. “Dr. Cohn has inspired a lot of loyalty, and it’s natural that when someone leaves and someone new comes in, there is going to be some turnover.”
But Jackson said she was more worried about how the board’s internal squabbles would affect its new superintendent search and the district’s future.
“If we’re ever going to get a superintendent worth any salt, we’re going to have to let them be superintendent, and us be board members,” she said.
Another trustee, Mitz Lee, said the school board would apply the lessons it learned from the last superintendent search as it commences the latest one.
“I guess this time, the board really needs the five of us to say where we would like this district to go,” she said.
Vladimir Kogan is a doctorate student at University of California, San Diego’s department of political science and a voiceofsandiego.org contributor. You can contact him directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a letter to the editor.