City Life: Superintendent search group is a feel-good exercise

The greatest deficiency of any bureaucracy is its inability to adapt to change or to anticipate problems.

But that's what makes them bureaucracies.

If they were able to adapt to change, or get ahead of a curve, we wouldn't call them bureaucracies; we'd call them Apple, Google or Disney.

So it should come as no surprise that a significant portion of the search process for a new Newport-Mesa Unified schools superintendent includes a series of "community input" meetings that are supposed give us common folk a stake in the decision.

"We want to get as much input as we can, and we want people to feel that they can be involved," interim Supt. Robert Barbot said last week to the Daily Pilot ("Supt. search process finalized," March 15).

See, you won't really be involved. You'll just feel as though you were.

The school board has a lot of experience with these feel-good meetings. Way back in 1994, the board authorized the formation of the Community Involvement Task Force, which met for about a year and drafted a comprehensive report that was ignored almost before the ink was dry.

That group of concerned citizens was hailed by then-Supt. Mac Bernd, who said at its first meeting that it "…might just be the most important body formed in terms of pulling a frustrated community together so that they could really be a part of the decision-making process."

It didn't work. It's 18 years later, and the frustration is greater than ever.

Now fast forward to 2006 and the formation of a superintendent search-advisory council to help select the new superintendent.

That group of — hold on to something — 45 people eventually chose Jeffrey Hubbard, who was sentenced to three years' probation and 60 days in jail (four of which he served), following his January conviction of two felony counts of misappropriation of public funds stemming from his time as the superintendent of Beverly Hills Unified School District.

In their defense, Hubbard's crimes were not likely to have been uncovered during the selection process. Not with 45 cooks in the kitchen.

Less than three years ago, I attended one of four "community meetings" formed "to get community input into the district's new strategic priorities under development," according to the Daily Pilot report from Oct. 3, 2009 ("District seeks community input").

These meetings were held around the district at Ensign Intermediate, Estancia High, Corona del Mar High and Costa Mesa High schools.

At the meeting I attended, there were some opening remarks, then we broke up into smaller groups, each one facilitated by a district representative. An easel for note taking was offered.

So what happened as a result of all those meetings?

Nothing of which I am aware, and certainly nothing that has helped Wilson, Whittier and Pomona elementary schools, which are among the 11 district schools classified by the state as Program Improvement Schools — a euphemism for "schools that need a lot of help."

Those meetings, like the meetings from 1994 and those since, offer the illusion of input and substantive dialogue, but they are really just dog-and-pony shows to mollify the masses and enable the trustees and the superintendent to say they are listening.

With the new superintendent search, we've come full circle.

This time around, reform seems once again to have passed over Bear Street. This time around, the bureaucrats are still doing what they do best: The superintendent search meetings will number 10 and the committee has been trimmed down to "only" 31.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to

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