School Board Outlines Ideal Superintendent

It’s superintendent season, and the San Marino Unified School District Board of Education has an idea of the kind of executive it would like to lead its small, high-achieving district.
With a rough outline of an ideal candidate, hiring consultants Mike Escalante and James Guerra will begin crafting the job description and pitch with which they hope to attract a handful of strong applicants from which the board can ultimately make a hire. Board members spent much of their meeting last week summarizing what they want to the consultants.
“This is all part of a process of developing a professional profile that will describe the position,” Escalante told the board. “It’s used to recruit; it’s used by the district to understand the needs of the district and it’s used by the consultant to help the board identify who it wants as a candidate.”
Integrating with the San Marino community quickly emerged as a mutual theme, with board members acknowledging the inherent challenges of running a highly ranked district with the simultaneous reward of having a heavily involved parent community.
“The main reason to come here is this is a community of people who care deeply about our kids and who are willing to put in the time and the resources for their love of the community. I think that is, unfortunately, rare in today’s world,” said board President Lisa Link. “On the other side of that is that it’s a very demanding community and they expect excellence and the best. Sometimes that can be tough, and this person needs to be able to know how to work with people and get through some of those difficult times.”
Corey Barberie, the board’s newcomer, touched on a common theme he heard from residents while he was campaigning for the seat last year and voiced a desire for a superintendent to truly ingrain him- or herself in the San Marino community.
“Someone who will go to all of the events and be available to all the parents and members of the community to really hear what the troubles are and what the successes are,” he said. “Some frustrations in the past have been around that. I think that would be a great quality to have in a superintendent. Hopefully they would want to move to our community.”
Board Vice President Chris Norgaard said he hoped to find candidates with budgeting finesse, given the district’s minimal funding from the state that is often supplemented by local taxes and donations from San Marino groups. He added he also wished to find someone who would embrace the growing challenges of addressing the concerns and needs of children in the district.
“I want somebody who would adopt a zero-based budgeting approach. In other words, coming in and doing an analysis from the ground up on what administrative structures would be best, what programs would be best and, figuratively, don’t assume they are inheriting anything that can’t be changed,” Norgaard said. “We have the basic resources in this community and certainly the history. Someone will be inheriting the people in this room, and you couldn’t inherit better people, but in terms of resources, I want somebody who will look at it from the ground up.
“From there, I would want somebody who would understand that as blessed as we are, we have had some issues and challenges and will continue to have challenges moving forward,” he added. “Someone who will welcome the challenge that we will no longer be the No. 1 district in California if we don’t do everything right, someone who will welcome the fact that La Cañada [Unified School District] is right there behind our back.”
Board member Shelley Ryan said she thinks an effective superintendent is willing to admit shortcomings and to solicit help when needed.
“I think a superintendent should have the ability to problem solve, the ability to see the big picture. Has to have the ability to make decisions, to be able to evaluate and be self-reflective and to really seek the experts. He or she may not be the expert in technology, but that’s why we have a cabinet that will support that,” she said. “The ability of a great leader is one who can raise his or her hand, ask questions and seek the information before he or she makes decisions. I think it’s critical to be reflective and say, ‘This isn’t going well,’ and pull it back and slow down so he or she can go faster later.”
Board member C. Joseph Chang said he wants commitment from the hire, making a vague reference to the tenure of the previous superintendent, Alex Cherniss, who resigned in August shortly after beginning his fourth year with SMUSD.
“The community has a lot of expectations,” he said. “We don’t want the superintendent to be here for four years and say ‘Goodbye’ and then we start again.”
The student board member, Alyssa Escamilla, observed that she personally had not seen much of the district’s superintendents on the San Marino High School campus and that it would send a message to students that they’re truly valued if high-level administrators had a stronger campus presence. Citing constantly changing standards and expectations of students nowadays, Escamilla added a superintendent should be able to roll with those punches.
“I think having somebody at the top of our district who understands that there are so many changes and willing to evolve with them instead of trying to hold onto more of a traditional standpoint” would be helpful, she said.
Escalante and Guerra, in explaining their process, observed that top candidates are often already superintendents at other school districts and the key would be in identifying which are truly invested in their jobs with those districts. Adding that a number of people already have contacted them about the job opening, they said it was a best practice to avoid publicizing names because, as most candidates tend to have high-level jobs with neighboring districts, applicants tend to shield their applications from their employers.
“That we’ve had so many people contact us about applying when there isn’t even anything posted publicly yet is really a testament to what your district has achieved,” Guerra said.

Leave a Reply