With 2001 drawing to a close, the Daily Planet asked members of the Board of Education to recall their most significant decisions from the past year.
The clear winner: the hiring of new Superintendent Michele Lawrence last spring.
“The most important decision a school board can make is getting an educational leader,” said Terry Doran, a school board member. “In getting Michele Lawrence, we really felt we got someone who had the necessary skills to confront the issues we face.”
“The new superintendent really is bringing to us a clear track record of success,” added Shirley Issel, president of the school board, referring to Lawrence’s ten-year run as superintendent of the Paramount United School District in Los Angeles County.
School board members said Lawrence has been particularly helpful, thus far, in focusing attention on the need to improve the district’s struggling business, data, food services and maintenance systems.
“There were slippages over several years and at some point it gets critical,” said John Selawsky, a school board member, referring to the decline of district systems. “We’ve reached that stage.”
Selawsky says Lawrence has helped to clarify the connection between these systems and the day-to-day realities of the classroom. But, he credits Steve Gladstone, who served as interim superintendent before Lawrence took over in July, with laying the groundwork on business and maintenance issues.
Indeed, Selawsky said the board’s January decision to hire an interim superintendent who did more than just tread water was one of the board’s most important moves of the year.
Ted Schultz, a school board member, said the board’s ongoing efforts to reorganize the faltering business department also deserve top billing.
The board attempted to lend some stability to the department, roiled by the departure of key administrators this year, and hampered by an old data processing system, when it hired a new business chief, Jerry Kurr, in December.
Kurr had served as a business consultant for the district for several months before applying for the full-time position.
“We were just thrilled that we could get a person of this quality so rapidly, and someone who knows the district so well,” said Doran.
Schultz said he hoped the business department will now be in a position to make the transition to a new data processing system that will help with budget decisions. The transition, planned since 2000, has been slowed dramatically by significant turnover in the business department, board members said.
Selawsky and Schultz said the decision to institute the ninth grade Critical Pathways program at Berkeley High School this fall was also a key decision.
The program, which seeks to stem the tide of ninth and 10th grade dropouts, identifies “at-risk” students, monitors their school attendance and provides extra help in reading and math.
Selawsky said the board has not passed final judgment on what may be the most controversial issue it has faced this year: small schools.
The board did decide, in its Dec. 19 meeting, to reject a proposal by the Coalition for Excellence and Equity, a community group, to divide Berkeley High School into a series of small, themed schools in the fall of 2003.
Instead, the board called for greater research into small schools models across the country.
Still, Selawsky said the eventual fate of small schools at Berkeley High is still very much up for debate.
Board Vice President Joaquin Rivera was out of town and unavailable for comment.