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San Diego Unified school board adds 46 people to superintendent search committee

San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten speaks online during a board meeting in September.
San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten speaks online during a board meeting in September. San Diego Unified’s board has appointed a committee to help search for a replacement for Marten, who is expected to become U.S. deputy education secretary.
(San Diego Unified School District)

Several dozen groups and community leaders — including a school music organization, county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and the Black Student Union Coalition — will help choose the San Diego Unified School District’s next superintendent.

On Feb. 23, the San Diego Unified board appointed 46 people to an advisory committee that will vet candidate applications and pick 10 semifinalists for the superintendent position as part of a search process that will last until December. The board is looking for a superintendent to replace Cindy Marten following her nomination to be U.S. deputy education secretary.

The list of committee members includes leaders of student groups, parent committees, employee unions, colleges and nonprofits, as well as local government officials. It includes former San Diego Unified board President John Lee Evans, San Diego mayoral Deputy Chief of Staff Nick Serrano and In the Public Interest senior policy advisor Clare Crawford, a school parent who previously co-chaired a board-appointed committee on San Diego Unified school board elections.

Two community members complained during this week’s board meeting that the board did not give the public time to see or vet the committee members beforehand. No list of names was posted on the board agenda when it was first published online, and some committee members were introduced for the first time during the meeting.

“I really wish that maybe you consider waiting until your next meeting, now that these names have been put out there, to allow for that feedback,” said Jeffrey Bennett, chairman of San Diego Unified’s District Advisory Committee, which will have a member on the search committee.

Board student trustee Zachary Patterson suggested the board put up a web page with answers to frequently asked questions to better clarify the search committee process to the public. He added that the committee is a work in progress.

“It is really important that everyone can feel at the end of this process, or at least most people, that they’re confident,” he said.

The advisory committee will not pick the superintendent; that remains the job of the school board. The committee will choose 10 semifinalists and the board will pick three finalists.

San Diego Unified‘s superintendent selection process appears to be an outlier, especially among large school districts, in that it is using an advisory committee and not a professional firm to help conduct its search, experts said.

It’s advisable to use search firms because they know which good candidates are out there, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the national School Superintendents Association.

Domenech does not recommend just waiting for applications to come in, because the board may miss strong potential candidates who are not currently looking to change their jobs or who don’t happen to apply.

“That’s not the kind of position you want to sit back and get applications for,” Domenech said. “You basically want a headhunter.”

Some parents, union leaders and board members recently said they want to use a local advisory committee instead of a firm because they did not want to outsource one of the board’s main responsibilities, hiring a superintendent, to an external group that is not accountable to local voters.

San Diego Unified board President Richard Barrera said in January that the board wouldn’t need a search firm because he believes the district won’t have any problems getting enough candidates to apply, considering the district’s standing nationwide and the news of Marten’s nomination.

He also said a search conducted by an outside firm would be less transparent than one conducted by a board-appointed committee.

But Domenech said search firms have a lot of experience backgrounding candidates, including fact-checking resumés and vetting candidates’ social media history. Firms help school boards avoid unwanted surprises, such as learning a candidate lied on his or her resumé, which has happened before, Domenech said.

Several community groups, including Parents for Quality Education, ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, NAACP San Diego and African-American Association of Educators, recently urged San Diego Unified to use a search firm. Some said they do not trust the board to conduct the search in a way that is transparent and representative of all communities.

Interim superintendent contract

The board this week also approved an interim superintendent contract for Lamont Jackson, the area superintendent who will take over for Marten once she is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The contract provides a $270,000 annual salary.

Jackson will serve as interim superintendent for the rest of 2021. Several principals have suggested that Jackson should become the permanent superintendent, given his decades of experience as a teacher, principal and central office administrator in San Diego Unified.

His contract says that if he is not picked as the permanent superintendent, Jackson will be the district’s chief operations officer starting Jan. 2. Before Marten was nominated, the San Diego Unified board had approved a plan to make Jackson the chief operations officer at the start of the coming school year, Barrera said. ◆