Even those people long familiar with Tom Payzant, the peripatetic San Diego city schools superintendent, marveled at his travel schedule last fall:
* On Oct. 10, Payzant left for Minneapolis and a five-day conference of the large-city school superintendents. After returning Oct. 14, he left a couple of days later, Oct. 16, for Boston and a two-day meeting of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
* The day after he returned from Boston, he went up to Los Angeles Oct. 19 for a one-day meeting of the Assn. of California Urban School Districts.
* Payzant came back to San Diego for six days, leaving Oct. 25 for a two-day Washington meeting of the Council for Basic Education board of directors. He went back to Boston for a second time the next week, on Nov. 2, for a two-day get-together of the College Board National Forum.
* On Nov. 7, he left for Boston yet a third time, for the five-day annual convention of the Council for Great City Schools. Four days after returning, he was off again on Nov. 15 for four days in Louisiana for a meeting of the Panasonic Foundation in Baton Rouge and a speech to the Louisiana Assn. of School Executives in Monroe.
The frenetic month of out-of-town speeches and conferences, sandwiched around a steady stream of appointments and trustee meetings at the education center, differed only in degree from Payzant's normal schedule of about 35 trips annually for at least the past three years.
Payzant has been absent from the district on business about one-fourth of the time, having taken 62 working days in 1990, 54 in 1989 and 59 in 1988 out of an average 250 working days a year. (He incorporates about 27 weekend days as well into these trips annually, in part because many national educational organizations schedule their conferences to include a Saturday or Sunday.)
Including his personal vacation and compensatory time off--between three and four weeks each year--Payzant is away from his office nearly a third of the time.
Some district employees are questioning whether he should decline a few of the national conferences and spend more time in the office running a sprawling school district that is the nation's eighth-largest urban system, with 120,000 students and 11,000 employees.
But the five school board trustees who serve as his bosses express only mild concern, if any, at Payzant's absences, saying the national exposure and attention he garners through his travels benefit San Diego.
Payzant defends his travels both as necessary to keep him intellectually engaged with the cutting edge of educational research, and as beneficial in highlighting San Diego's visibility to foundations looking to seed local school districts with grant money.
"The travel allows me to get the kind of information and stimulation that comes when you expand your world beyond the workplace," Payzant said. "In general, we don't do enough of that for people in education, to force ourselves to read widely and get outside the field. . . . Educators by and large don't read outside of their discipline."
Now serving his ninth year in San Diego, Payzant is constantly in demand to sit on national educational boards, especially because he is the third-ranking superintendent in terms of longevity among the nation's top 75 school district chiefs.
The debate is not over whether Payzant travels for leisure; his usual habit is to take overnight flights, if necessary, to be in his office on Mondays and Tuesdays when his top assistants and trustees meet, and leave town only in the latter part of any given week.
Nor is it over the amount of money spent; most of his trips are paid by sponsoring organizations. In 1990, the district paid $5,798.17, an average of $161 spread over each of his 36 trips. In 1989, it paid $3,889.42, an average of $111. In 1988, the district cost was $1,704, or $52 for an average trip.
Rather, the debate is over whether more of his time could be better spent in San Diego.
"If he were more visible around the district, then maybe people might put out more and move us along further on dropout and achievement-gap policies," one central office administrator said privately.
Payzant and the board have set controversial goals for principals and teachers--with as-yet unspecified consequences if they fail--to cut the number of dropouts substantially and to halve the gap between white and Asian achievement, on the one hand, and Latino and black children, on the other.
"There's also a sense we could be further along on restructuring," said another administrator, who also asked not to be identified. The district has told all schools to move toward shared decision-making where, together with the principal, teachers and parents have a legitimate say in how a school is run. But the policy has met resistance at many levels throughout the district.
"The sense I get from more than a few people is that, 'Oh, is he gone again?' and that he could be out mixing with the troops a lot more, pushing his policies," the administrator said.
A longtime principal said that Payzant "could sure spend more time listening to me, to my teachers, to help persuade us that the decisions from the board are the correct ones, to just do morale-building."
Yet board president Shirley Weber summed up the attitude of her colleagues in saying, "I really can't identify anything that has resulted in the district floundering or having no direction" as a result of his travels. "He's got an excellent staff that he can rely on. . . . He's not here to be a hands-on administrator."
Even Hugh Boyle, president of the San Diego Teachers Assn., the labor union that represents all district teachers, doubted whether "his being here more would make much of a difference since Tom gets a lot of his ideas for change, for setting the direction of the district, through his travel."
Payzant was gently chided about his travel in an August, 1989 evaluation from trustees, where they asked him to carefully "balance his job of running the district and providing leadership on the national level."
Board vice president Ann Armstrong said the evaluation was meant to "focus him more, to have him concentrate more on things during his travel that might be of more direct interest to the district, such as school restructuring."
But Armstrong echoed other board members in saying she "has never had a complaint from anyone about his absences."
"I look at his travel as a nice benefit to his job, and I assume that any intelligent, articulate large-city superintendent might spend a certain amount of time outside the district.
"And, when we hear from other districts, people who have heard about San Diego through Tom or whatever, you come home and it is hard not to be smug, that even with all the problems we have, we are still on the cutting edge."
Added Armstrong: "Yes, we do wrestle with issues like trying to improve academics of African-American males, and we're a long way from success, but whether Tom is here or in New York on a given day, I'm not sure that negatively impacts us in any way."
Trustee Susan Davis said she certainly notices when Payzant is out of town when a crisis occurs.
He was gone when students rioted at Gompers Secondary School; when a student was shot by school police while burglarizing a classroom at Zamorano Elementary and when a bus rolled over while taking students home from Standley Junior High.
"But he does have excellent assistant administrators, and I guess that his real purpose is to set the tone for the district and let his team carry things out," Davis said.
Both Davis and new member Sue Braun did say Payzant might improve employee acceptance of controversial new policies if he were more visible at individual schools. Payzant in past years used to regularly visit two or three schools a week, but he conceded that he is now lucky to get to one a week.
"The only thing I see is that, if he were out more at schools, he would more directly hear of the problems that teachers have," Braun said. "Now I think he sometimes has to take the word of staff when sometimes I find that what they tell him is not always completely true."
Assistant Supt. Eloiza Cisneros acknowledged that Payzant's top lieutenants "have to be his eyes and ears" because of his absences. "We have to fill the gap, to keep him current on day-to-day programs, on union activity, because principals need to know that information is getting to him.
"I think that (schools) would love to see him more, to share accomplishments with him personally and to genuinely feel that he knows what they are doing."
But former trustee Kay Davis, who served eight years during Payzant's tenure, said the superintendent "would not be as happy without all the outside commitments."
"Tom's an intellectual type of guy and day-to-day things like maintenance, administrative policy, are pretty predictable and not the most interesting. . . . I just wonder where he gets his stamina. He works a lot of weekends keeping up on all the paperwork left behind."
Payzant insisted that, although he enjoys the frenetic pace, "I am not at all bored in San Diego. . . . The challenge of restructuring, of trying to refocus teaching and learning, all keep me stimulated."
Payzant said he could easily "simply be attending more meetings" at the education center if he were in San Diego more. "Everyone wants a piece of me, and I would spend so much time with people, that I would have even less for reading, for thinking, for writing . . . which I can do on my cross-country plane trips."
And, although the heavy travel load keeps Payzant on the road week after week, there is no district policy requiring employees to turn frequent-flier mileage over to the district, allowing Payzant to use the mileage to take his family on occasional trips.
Tom Payzant, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, has spent as much as a fourth of the work year out of town on business.
Total Out-of- Weekdays Total District Year Trips State Trips on Trips Cost 1990 36 28 62 $5,798.17 1989 35 26 54 $3,889.42 1988 34 21 59 $1,704.00
Source: District records reviewed by Los Angeles Times.