City Life: Community's input is vital during superintendent search

Last week's list of recommendations for the qualities of the new school superintendent was incomplete.

Wendy Frankel, a reader with 40 years of teaching experience, wrote to me that it is important to select someone who is "willing to substitute [teach] 10 days a year in actual classrooms in the district."

"No one knows what goes on in a classroom in a 10-minute visit, especially when everyone in the school knows the superintendent is coming to visit," she added. "In fact, I think it should be a requirement that every administrator in a school district, and that includes school board members, be on the sub list and sub in classrooms eight to 10 days a year."

Frankel's comment reflects the importance of ensuring that our decision-makers are more in touch with day-to-day classroom operations. There is far too much time spent in meetings.

The key qualities for the new superintendent, based on comments at the district-sponsored community input sessions, reveal he or she should be trustworthy, honest, transparent and have a high level of integrity. Those are qualities for anyone in any position, but particularly important when it comes to educating our kids.

My own additional thought is that the new superintendent must be someone not currently employed in the district. This is important because, as with any bureaucracy, existing relationships, loyalties and an ingrained mindset on how things are supposed to be done are detrimental to the progress needed at the 11 Costa Mesa schools that are in Program Improvement (PI) status.

These schools and their stakeholders — the teachers, administrators, parents and students — need someone with fresh eyes, someone who can make quick, viable recommendations based on what he or she knows has worked in similar circumstances, and who can make them without concern over politics and egos.

The focus on the 11 PI schools prompted a few comments in the meetings from Newport Beach parents, who have concerns that the emphasis on improving the Costa Mesa schools may result in the neglect of their own.

This concern is understandable and appreciated. If I were the parent of a child in a high-performing school, I would do what I could to preserve and protect that status. But the attempt to improve Costa Mesa's schools is not a zero-sum effort; that is, the Costa Mesa schools will not be improved at the expense of the Newport schools.

I know this because a significant part of the success of the Newport schools has little to do with a superintendent. There, a common thread of success is the parents and the emphasis in their homes that they place on education. No superintendent will change that.

It is in the best interests of the Newport parents to support improved Costa Mesa schools in order to stop the transfer of students from Costa Mesa schools to those in Newport, Huntington Beach or private schools. That, in turn, will create stronger local schools, which helps everyone.

That said, two disturbing comments appeared at the Estancia High School community input meeting under the question, "What do you consider to be the greatest needs/critical issues facing the Newport-Mesa Unified School District?" The first reads: "More equitable distribution of funds between higher and lower income level schools." The second reads: "Centralized fundraising vs. site-based gets everything."

I will be very clear here: All public funds should be equally distributed and, as far as I know, that is the case. The private money raised at any school should stay in that school, unless the fundraising organization votes otherwise. This is not money for all schools, only for that school.

There is a group that exists for centralized fundraising. It is an excellent organization called the Newport-Mesa Schools Foundation, which is a "…nonprofit organization of volunteer community members dedicated to serving all schools, all teachers and all students in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District by raising funds for the Grants to Teachers program and special curriculum needs."

This is the time to hire a superintendent who has battled it out in the trenches. This person must spend more time on campuses and less time in conference rooms. He or she must provide the bold leadership required to turn around Costa Mesa's schools while preserving the high quality of the schools in Newport Beach.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to smi161@aol.com.

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