The county’s grand jury put out two reports in May concerning school boards. One discusses elections and term limits while the other points to inconsistent training of both school board members and superintendents.
California is one of 23 states that doesn’t mandate that school board members receive formal training. Being that board members are made up of mostly laypersons with day jobs, the grand jury would like to see mandated training. The grand jury concedes that superintendents usually come to the table with a lot of education and experience – “Yet many new superintendents find themselves in novel and extraordinary situations where additional training would be beneficial.”
One such situation would be the police shooting of a suicidal 15-year-old this month at Torrey Pines High School. Torrey Pines is in the San Dieguito Unified School District, a district that has been one of the more proactive school districts with a suicide-prevention plan in place for a couple decades.
The grand jury sent out surveys to all 42 county school districts in September 2016 and 37 responded. The survey asked seven questions, four requiring only yes or no responses. Out of 37 districts, 21 don’t require training of school board members. Only four districts said training was mandatory, though most districts reported providing training upon request.
The most common training mentioned was with the California School Boards Association, a nonprofit that offers training to school districts for a fee. It was reported last week that they were in the top ten of California lobbyists in terms of spending thus far in 2017. They outspent both AT&T and Sempra.
As far as superintendent training, it was almost an even split with only 18 districts requiring training. Most surprising was that 13 districts said they didn’t provide written rules and guidelines to school board members.
The grand jury did in-depth interviews with four school districts that reported not requiring training for either board members or superintendents: San Dieguito Union High School District, Poway Unified School District, Carlsbad Unified School District, and the Santee School District.
The grand jury referred to recent grand jury reports that took issue with school districts' finances and ethics. One report mentioned the high turnover of superintendents.
Of the four school districts the grand jury interviewed, all have superintendents that have been on the job for less than one year. They all came to the job with between 15 – 25 years of school district experience, but only three have teaching experience. Eric Dill, the superintendent from San Dieguito, worked in the insurance industry before joining the school district in 2001.
Both superintendents from Carlsbad and Santee retired after around 30 years in the game (4-5 years as superintendents). Poway fired theirs for overpaying himself and San Dieguito’s got poached for another superintendent gig in northern California. Poway’s fired superintendent’s pension is still in play though at a reported $187,500 in 2016. Since he was fired in July 2016, it’s possible that amount will double in 2017. This is according to Transparent California that lists salaries and pensions for public employees online. The latter is run by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a group that favors school voucher programs.
Before being fired, it was reported that Poway’s superintendent was raking in $448,861 annually. For point of reference, his replacement will be starting out at $287,500 which is more in line with superintendents that recently left Carlsbad, Santee, and San Dieguito.
The grand jury noted that all superintendents were highly qualified. Of the last few previous superintendents in each of the four districts, all had an average of 26 years of experience (majority closer to 30 years) before taking the superintendent position. All but one had been either a superintendent or assistant superintendent before taking the helm of their districts.
When it comes to school board members' annual compensation, it ranges around $4,000 to more than $30,000, depending on the district (2014/2015 reported salaries). Poway is on top and Santee is on the bottom. Even though this is a job with a lot of responsibility, it’s mostly done by people with day jobs.
Day jobs of current board members in these four districts include Jewelry TV sales, accounting, political consulting, financial advising, as a camp director, selling bakery supplies, and being part of the executive team of Rady’s Children’s hospital. A few board members have their own businesses including a construction firm, hardware store, and packaging business.
One member of the Carlsbad board is a health benefits specialist that assists public school districts navigate purchasing health insurance. Another Carlsbad member contracts with local school districts for adult education services.
Those without day jobs include those with experience in the biotech industry and as a former DEA agent.
The other grand jury report focuses on the election process for San Diego Unified school board members and term limits. As it is now, candidates have to compete in both a district-focused primary as well as a citywide general election. Councilmember Chris Cate was ahead of the grand jury report when he tried to convince his colleagues in March to prepare a ballot measure to keep elections district-focused and to install term limits. He was outvoted.
While Poway is on the top of the heap as far as board member compensation, it has by far the newest board members with no one elected in before 2013.
Board members from all four districts have served anywhere between 37 years to just a few months. Barbara Ryan has been on the Santee board since 1979. The next longest tenure comes from another Santee board member, Dianne El-Hajj, a middle school English teacher that teaches in another district. She was voted onto the Santee board in 1992. San Dieguito’s vice president has been on the board for twenty years.
Elisa Williamson is the president of the Carlsbad board and has been on the board for 16 years. She said the board hasn’t discussed the grand jury report yet, but she looks forward to a lively conversation when it appears on a future agenda.
I asked her if she thought there was any difference in the quality of decision making between those board members with teaching or school district experience and laypersons. Williamson who has some teaching experience said, “One of the first things I learned while attending the Masters in Governance program [training through the California School Boards Association] is that school board members aren't expected to be experts in pedagogy; that's a staff responsibility.”
As far as training, Williamson said that all new board members receive training regarding the Brown Act, finances, personnel and educational issues. She said that all board members attend workshops and that most attend conferences.
Williamson said their new superintendent, Dr. Ben Churchill (started July 2016), participates in ongoing professional development but that his most effective training is being mentored by seasoned superintendents.
Both grand jury reports require responses by August 1 (training) and 7 (elections), 2017.