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Learning Matters: Superintendents matter to everyone in a school district

Yes, a superintendent is very important.

That’s my response to the question posed in Brian Crosby’s most recent “Whiteboard Jungle” column, where he shared his views on the school board’s release of Glendale Supt. Winfred Roberson Jr. (GNP February 9, 2019, “Despite high GUSD turnover, students succeed”).

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Please understand. I appreciate Crosby’s long tenure as a teacher at Hoover High School and the dedication he shows to his students and teaching.

I love how he tries to connect his students to issues outside their classrooms, to history and arts and current events.

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I share Crosby’s wish for stability in district leadership, and I’m sorry that the latest superintendent-school board partnership didn’t work out as the parties and the community had hoped.

In the nearly six years since former News-Press editor Dan Evans invited Crosby and me to write weekly alternating education columns, I’ve rarely felt compelled to take issue with his opinions. But I must offer a counterpoint to his recent question about the value of a superintendent.

For starters, Crosby’s description of the news of Roberson’s release generating “more of a ripple than a tsunami” reminds me how differently various audiences can react to news.

Many people in the civic and nonprofit worlds where I spend much of my time — who may be outside of schools but they are very much concerned with them — the news of the release came not as a ripple but as a crashing wave, a worrisome sign of stormy seas. Community members — along with many of the educators I know in the district — know that the contractual release of a superintendent is a big deal.

I also take issue with the comment that “Roberson now joins the ranks of recent Glendale Unified superintendents who seem intent on not staying very long.”

No superintendent I’ve known (excluding the interims whom Crosby counts in his calculation of average tenures) aspired to a short term.

But here’s the statement that prompted this response.

“New superintendents tend to establish their authority via some new cockamamie education program that is mandated for implementation in all classrooms without teacher input. Veteran teachers know how to ride out such fads and don’t get too riled up about it because it will last as long as the superintendent remains in office.”

For some calm perspective, I reached out to a few former school board colleagues, and I got this response from Chuck Sambar, who was a teacher, Glendale Teachers Assn. leader, and administrator in the district before his election to the board. He is now enjoying retirement in Pacific Grove, Calif.

In Sambar’s words, “Glendale superintendents. Burtis Taylor, Jim Brown, and Mike Escalante had a profound impact on building a school district and a culture that served students and community. Their impact was not fad based. They were leaders whose decisions and actions were based on common sense, respect for teachers and staff, financial stability, managed growth in time of challenge or prosperity, inclusion, consultation, and above all, honesty and integrity.”

With thanks to my friend Chuck, I’ll add a few examples I recall of the impacts of superintendents.

Robert Sanchis led the district in a time of enormous population growth, from 1982 to 1996, when, as an example, one elementary school grew from 615 to 1,400 students, many of them English-language learners. Sanchis assembled a team that led our district to become a model for English-language instruction and for welcoming new parents to public education in the United States. He managed the shift of half the district to year-round education to accommodate school growth, and he engaged parents and teachers in the development of the district’s first strategic plan.

Jim Brown arrived in 1996, just as California instituted class-size reduction in the primary grades. With class-size reduction, came a wave (another tsunami) of brand-new teachers and a parade of portable classrooms.

In quick response, Brown tapped local leaders to spearhead the successful Measure K school-bond campaign, and he orchestrated the conversations that resulted in the opening of Clark Magnet High School. In fulfillment of one of a superintendent’s many responsibilities, he selected Doug Dall as Clark’s founding principal, a decision that has made an enormous difference for students in Glendale.

In 2000, when a student died in an altercation in front of one of our schools, Brown worked with school and community representatives — including parents, students and teachers — to address the issues that surfaced by that tragedy.

Michael Escalante, facing significant funding cuts when he arrived in the district, accomplished the unpopular task of cutting district positions without laying off teachers. And in a determined effort to avert the closure of an elementary school due to shrinking enrollment, he proposed the formation of the Foreign Language Academies of Glendale, one of the district’s signature reforms.

We also have Escalante to thank for the existence of Hoover High School’s award-winning marching band, and it was he who paved the way for the rebirth of the Glendale Educational Foundation, which has been augmenting district programs for nearly 15 years.

I could say more, about Dick Sheehan, about Don Empey stepping out of retirement to serve as interim superintendent, and of the difficult challenges handed to Roberson.

But I’ll close with the words from a 1996 California School Boards Assn. publication — maybe old but not outdated: “The employment of a superintendent… is the opportunity to create a climate of teamwork that will enable the district’s schools to successfully educate students far into the future.”

Superintendents make a difference. So do the school boards who hire them.

JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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