While the casual observer may believe that many school boards are "rubber stamps" due to lack the controversy and discussion, school boards can gain a reputation for being dysfunctional or of micromanaging. When school board members do not focus on what matters, problems can follow. In one school district, the ability to hire new superintendent is impacted, while another school district struggles to focus on student achievement.
After a controversy and superintendent steps down, it maybe to wise look outside for replacement candidates, or the Board may face a recall action. However, replacement candidates sometimes change their minds when the controversy appears to linger. Recalls can occur when the Board settles a large lawsuit with a former Superintendent.
The challenge for a school board is attract enough qualified candidates to select from without compromising the current Superintendent employment status. Board members need to be circumspect when letting the public know about potential candidates or face censure. As a result, the search and selection process can be as secretive as selecting a Pope. In August, 2006, the Los Angeles Times commented on the search process underway to replace outgoing Superintendent Ray Romer. In 2009, Oakland Unified created this Superintendent Profile to recruit a new Superintendent.
Here is presentation from 2005 NSBA convention on the legal pitfalls to avoid when conducting a superintendent search.
Finally, it pays to actually check the applicant's background, as this San Francisco Bay Area school district found out.
Alum Rock board's history may hinder search for chief
Another superintendent has come and gone, but "The Alum Rock Way" still plagues Santa Clara County's largest elementary school district.
It's come to define the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District: Negativity. School board conflict. And a system that changes superintendents with a frequency rarely seen in Santa Clara County schools.
With the early departure of Superintendent Alfonso R. Anaya, Alum Rock board members are about to search for a new leader. Since 1987, just one superintendent has lasted more than three years -- and the district's reputation is likely to spook some promising candidates.
"Good candidates are looking as hard at the district as the district is looking at them,'' said Richard Loveall, director of Executive Search Services in West Sacramento. Until the school board shows "that they are speaking with one voice and there is a commitment to governance, I think that they will find themselves not attracting the best candidates."
As the district courts a superintendent to guide its future, it must also face its past. In 1995 and 1998, two scathing Santa Clara County grand jury investigations found that school board infighting and intimidation hampered the district's service of its largely low-income constituents, many of whom are immigrants.
After each report came out, board members said things were getting better. But the district's critics say many things haven't changed.
Alum Rock needs a candidate who has "strong leadership in curriculum and actually bridging the achievement gap," Loveall said.
Chief leaves early
Last week Alum Rock trustees asked Anaya to step down early, before his scheduled retirement date of Aug. 30. In his 2 1/2 years at the district, he garnered some praise for supporting innovative small-school programs; but he also clashed with teachers, administrators and some board members over his personal style and personnel decisions.
In October, Anaya announced that he would resign at the end of the school year; it had become clear that he lacked the support of a majority of the board. Anthony Russo, former superintendent of Oak Grove School District, will serve as Alum Rock's interim superintendent.
The district's discord predated Anaya. The board is so well-known for feuds that community members have dubbed the resulting chaos "The Alum Rock Way."
Board member Kim Mesa said that culture of fighting and poor communication is a major challenge to the district's progress. Board members will undergo communication training at her suggestion.
"It has everything to do with that," Mesa said. "When they say "The Alum Rock Way" now, it's a negative connotation." Mesa said she hopes the board can select a new superintendent by the end of this school year.
The district used to be more stable. Then in the early 1990s, rival factions on the school board fought openly. One group tried to mount a recall campaign against the other.
Gaye Dabalos followed Alum Rock board politics for most of the 1990s, and served on the Alum Rock board between 1998 and 2002. She still has trouble sorting out where the culture went wrong. She recalls rivalries on the board, marked by splits between a slim voting majority and other board members. After an election, power would shift, and superintendents could find themselves lacking the votes to get things done.
"I've tried not to watch because I get upset," Dabalos said. She said she has hope, though, that the newly elected board will do better. "I do believe it's possible that they could muddle together a team."
Looking for a leader
Cathy Flores said she has taught in Alum Rock for almost 25 years, in classrooms where teachers have to work harder to overcome language barriers. She hopes the board and a new superintendent can lead the troubled schools more effectively.
"Other people will say, "Who's going to want to come to Alum Rock?" We have a terrible reputation," said Flores, a teacher at McCollam Elementary, one of the district's most improved schools. "It's tough here."
Alum Rock school board gives superintendent $294,000 as she steps aside
By Sharon Noguchi, San Jose Mercury News, December 3, 2008
School District Superintendent Norma Martinez has worked out a deal to resign from the struggling East San Jose district with about $294,000 in severance pay plus benefits.
In a hastily called meeting Tuesday, the board voted 3-1 to release Martinez