Viewpoint - March 17, 2010

Editorial: Search far and wide for superintendent

With an annual budget approaching $100 million and 1,000 employees, the Sequoia Union High School District far exceeds the size of many Silicon Valley companies. And with some 8,200 students, its four comprehensive high schools (including Menlo-Atherton and Woodside), adult school and Redwood continuation high school have long been fixtures in Peninsula communities.

In recent years, the district has served many students well, although it has struggled to improve the graduation rate among underperforming students and has become known for its increasingly strident opposition to charter schools, particularly Everest Public High School. This opposition, with outgoing superintendent Pat Gemma acting as the point man for a majority on the district board, has included successful opposition to Everest's acquiring a charter at local and county levels and unsuccessful opposition at the state level. The state's granting of a charter for Everest then led to the district's obligation to provide adequate and appropriate facilities, as required by law. To put it mildly, the district has not cooperated.

With Mr. Gemma's retirement, which is effective at the end of the current school year, district board members have a major opportunity to turn a new page and bring in a superintendent who is willing to end the war with charter schools and improve the graduation and college entrance rate of the student body.

Unfortunately, the board is now moving in the opposite direction after deciding in a recent closed session to restrict recruitment of a new superintendent to "inside" candidates only. The restriction would rule out a nationwide search for a superintendent, a terrible decision that is very likely to place the district in the hands of James Lianides, who was hired by Mr. Gemma and if appointed is expected to continue his unfettered opposition to charter schools.

At a Feb. 24 closed session, board President Olivia Martinez said a board majority voted to "limit the search for a superintendent to internal candidates," an action that some open-government supporters contend violates the state's open-meeting law, known as the Brown Act. The law, critics say, permits discussion of a specific candidate in closed session, but not the process of selecting a candidate.

Saying he is outraged about the decision, Atherton resident Peter Carpenter, a former board member of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and now president of the Atherton Civic Interest League, says he will file a lawsuit to challenge the board's action, which he claims violates the Brown Act.

And Terry Francke, general counsel of the nonprofit open-government advocacy group California Aware, said he agrees that "...a discussion of whether to conduct a search is not a matter for closed session."

There are other opinions that say such a closed-session decision is not specifically outlawed by the open-meeting law, and the Sequoia district's attorney made a spirited defense of the board's decision on The Almanac's Town Square Web site in an exchange with Mr. Carpenter.

But regardless, district residents should be appalled that the Sequoia board does not want to reach out to interview the very best candidates in the country for superintendent. To do so would not restrict any current Sequoia staffer from applying, but would surely widen the field by a huge factor and bring in applicants who we expect would have fresh ideas about how the district operates.

The decision to limit the search smacks of cronyism of the worst sort by a board that obviously does not want a change of direction for a district that we believe must have new leadership as it adjusts to the growing charter school phenomenon and tackles the lagging graduation rate. The board should change direction as soon as possible and vote to open a nationwide search for a new superintendent.


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