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BUSD Begins Search For New District Superintendent

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday September 14, 2007

The Berkeley Board of Education began the search for a new superintendent for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Wednesday. 

The board hired Mission Viejo-based Leadership Associates—a search firm specializing in superintendent selection skills in over 130 California school districts—less than a week after BUSD superintendent Michele Law- rence announced her retirement starting Feb. 1. 

Board members discussed with the firm’s representatives criteria which would play an important role in recruiting a new superintendent and agreed upon a timeline. 

A small group of parents turned up at the meeting Tuesday night since most families were attending Back to School night and PTA meetings. 

Lee Glover-Owens, mother of a sixth-grade student at King Middle School, emphasized the importance of a superintendent who would fight to eradicate the achievement gap in the Berkeley public schools. 

“The next superintendent should not only tackle the problem but also eliminate it,” she said. “I want the next superintendent to be a humble person, well educated and with a hands-on love for children. He or she should open up every possible resource to teach a child and ensure that every child is successful by the time they leave Berkeley High.”  

David Manson—district representative for state Sen. Don Perata—told the board that it was important to include voices from communities of color during the selection process, an idea that was also emphasized by board member Karen Hemphill. 

“The new superintendent should be a leader in bringing together community groups,” she said, “someone who has demonstrated through prior activities a deep understanding of equity and how race and class affect student achievement.” 

The board agreed that the ideal candidate should be comfortable with being in the spotlight.  

“We will be giving a very careful look at what you are looking for,” Jake Abbott of Leadership Associates told the board. 

“It’s extremely important we hear what you are thinking about.” 

Board member Shirley Issel said it was important to focus on the district’s current needs during the selection process.  

“During the last recruitment process we had a lot of need to focus on financial stability,” she said. “The district was in a run down condition that needed to be repaired. We have made a lot of progress but there is continued weakness in personnel management and pupil achievement. The new superintendent will have to continue critical oversight on budget and respond to critical needs. I am particularly looking for someone who has demonstrated achievement in all these areas.” 

After joining the district in 2001, Lawrence saw it through a serious budget deficit and oversaw cost savings of up to $15 million in the last three years. 

Board president Joaquin Rivera said that Berkeley could not be a training ground for a new superintendent, and requested a candidate who had experience with school boards and state and federal issues. 

“We are still looking for the same things we looked at six years ago,” said school board vice president John Selawsky. “Someone who advocates strongly for public education, has strong leadership skills, experience, and values the culture of Berkeley. Someone with strong business knowledge and political sophistication. Even though we have around 10,000 students in our community we have a very politically conscious community.” 

Selawsky added that since the board would address the district’s facilities sometime in the next five to ten years, the new superintendent would have also have to understand the importance of a community process. 

“We want someone who will stick with us,” said Issel.  

“And also buys into our district’s concept of focusing on the whole child. He or she must have high expectations for all children,” quipped in Riddle. 

A majority of board members said that the next superintendent should respect negotiations with unions. 

“Someone who can count,” Riddle added. “I see a lot of facilities bonds in the future. It would be really nice to have a superintendent who knows what a parcel tax is since we rely heavily on those for a budget.” 

Robert Trig of Leadership Associates told the board that superintendent searches had increased in the last one year. 

“Superintendents are retiring,” he said. “The field is getting thinner. We are going outside California to look for candidates. This brings in some positives as well as negatives. The California finance laws are unique. If you haven’t worked in California and don’t have a network of people who can help you, it can be very difficult. This is an issue.” 

Abbott added that to attract the right kind of candidates, districts were providing “golden handcuffs,” or amenities such as health benefits and housing loans. 

Lawrence, whose contract stipulates an annual salary of $200,000, was also provided a $300,000 housing loan in order to encourage her to live within the district. 

“Berkeley is not a very large district but it is a high profile district,” said Trig. “We want the candidates to understand the challenges of the district.” 

Riddle said that the board wanted to cast a wider net to the district’s sister cities while Issel said that she preferred someone from within the state. 

Reading from a suggested timeline, Abbott said that the consultants would meet with district staff and community members on Sept. 24 and 25 for input. 

“We’d prefer if the board not be there during the community meetings,” Abbott said. “We want people to feel comfortable. The board can listen but not take part in the discussion.” 

According to the timeline, the consultants would begin identifying candidates and develop a recruitment brochure between now and October. After interviewing the finalists on Dec. 8 and 9, the board would visit the community of the leading candidate. The new superintendent would begin in January. 


Closed session 

Following the discussion, the board met with the consultants in closed session to discuss the contractual parameters of the future superintendent.  

Terry Francke of the California First Amendment Coalition told the Planet that the closed session might have violated state laws requiring open government meetings. He said the Brown Act, which governs when meetings can be closed to the public, had no provision which allowed closed sessions to discuss the financial terms of a contract in general. 

“If they want to decide the maximum they will pay in the abstract before entering into negotiations with a particular person, that cannot be in closed session,” Francke said. “Closed session is permissible when the board is discussing its agreement with a particular person.” 

Lawrence, however, told the Planet that the school board was legally permitted to establish the financial parameters of a contract for a prospective superintendent in closed session. 

“In terms of negotiating a salary of a prospective superintendent we can do it in closed session,” she said. “Once the parameters have been established and the contract settled the board must fully disclose it to the public. The same was done in my case.”