Alan Bersin, who as United States attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties has served as the "border czar" overseeing a crackdown on illegal immigration and drug smuggling, was named Monday as superintendent of the San Diego school system, the eighth-largest in the nation.
Bersin, 51, succeeds Bertha Pendleton, who is retiring this summer after 41 years as a teacher and administrator in San Diego schools. Bersin, who has no background as an educational administrator, said he will meet Wednesday with U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to discuss who will replace him as interim U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California.
The school board voted 4 to 0 to offer Bersin a four-year contract starting at $165,000 a year. The contract provides performance incentives if student test scores improve. One school board member abstained in protest of what she thought was a flawed selection system.
"Both the board and Mr. Bersin are committed to modeling a contract that holds the superintendent accountable for measurable performance objectives," said school board President Ron Ottinger.
The board, Ottinger said, was looking for "proven leadership and a change agent." Moreover, Bersin gave the best answers to 15 questions posed to all candidates, Ottinger said. "Mr. Bersin insists on a high standard of excellence and accountability from himself and people who work for him."
Bersin, addressing the board Monday, pledged to make enhanced performance and achievement his top priorities.
"I believe with all my heart in the teachings of Gandhi," Bersin said. "We must become the change we wish to see in the world. We must become the change we wish to see in San Diego."
San Diego schools have used a variety of programs and methods to raise the test scores of schools in low-income and minority neighborhoods, but with mixed results. Recently the school board placed 20 schools--including one touted by President Clinton as an example for the nation--on notice that test scores must improve--or else.
When word leaked out recently that Bersin was a finalist for the superintendent's post, a group of immigrants rights advocates--including the La Raza Lawyers Assn.--blasted him and suggested that his appointment would be inappropriate and insensitive in a district where more than one-third of the students are Latino.
But a lineup of local leaders--including two of the region's major Latino leaders, San Diego Councilman Juan Vargas and La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid--countered with their own news conference backing Bersin.
The San Diego school system has 137,000 students and 167 schools, making it the second-largest public system in the state, behind only Los Angeles. The district is 17% African American, 10% Asian, 8% Filipino, 36% Latino and 28% white.
Bersin was one of two finalists selected by a search committee that had considered a YMCA executive, a real estate executive, the president of the University of San Diego, a Latino physician, and an African American community leader and former city councilman.
The two were interviewed by board members and the job was offered to Bersin on Sunday. The name of the other finalist was not revealed.
Bersin, a native of Brooklyn, graduated from Harvard, where he was a star football player. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and earned a law degree at Yale in 1974.
Clinton named him a U.S. attorney in 1993 although he had no experience as a prosecutor. Before his appointment he practiced securities and insurance law.
Bersin was asked Monday whether he would continue his fight against illegal immigration once he becomes school superintendent.
"What would happen if I found a student in the district who was an illegal alien?" he asked. "Under the U.S. Constitution, absolutely nothing, except to make sure he or she has his or her homework done on time."