‘Dr. Right’

CUSD board makes match with Superintendent Chet Francisco

SAINT FRANCISCO <br>The District Office, or the “D.O,” as it’s called in Chico, may get a new name. In new superintendent Chet Francisco’s former district, they go for the cozier, more-inclusive title of “district support center.” Inset: Chet Francisco was with his former district for nine years.

The District Office, or the “D.O,” as it’s called in Chico, may get a new name. In new superintendent Chet Francisco’s former district, they go for the cozier, more-inclusive title of “district support center.” Inset: Chet Francisco was with his former district for nine years.

He has a life: Chet Francisco, who plans to rent before he buys in Chico, enjoys golf, motorcycle-riding and reading in his free time. He and his wife, Penny, have three children in their 30s. Before Murrieta, Francisco led a small district near Edwards Air Force Base in Kern County. He attended CSU, Northridge, Azusa Pacific University and United States International University.

Unanimously enamored with the man from Southern California, the five trustees voted Sept. 7 to hire Chet Francisco as the Chico Unified School District’s new superintendent. He starts work Oct. 1 and will be paid $170,000 a year.

“He’s focused, he’s all about kids, he’s real, he’s approachable, he communicates well and he’s a leader,” tallied Trustee Anthony Watts, who, along with Trustee Jann Reed, visited Francisco’s district in Riverside County last week. “This is truly an impressive individual.”

The “dating pool” was small, winnowed quickly from 18 to five to two. But, as board President Rick Anderson put it, they only needed one. And they lucked out.

Francisco, 57, said he’s looking for a change of scenery, and, though it sounds clichà, “new challenges.”

Since 1997, he has led the Murrieta Valley Unified School District. The K-12 district has 20,000 students to the CUSD’s 13,500 and its budget is $130 million to the CUSD’s $100 million.

“My wife and I have always been interested in living in a university town,” Francisco said. His wife, Penny, is an assistant superintendent in Encinitas, an hour from Murrieta. (They live in Carlsbad.)

To make sure Francisco wasn’t too good to be true, Watts said he asked the PTA, parents, city officials and others: “Everybody’s got some dirt—what is it?”

There’s a rift on the school board there, with area media characterizing it as two members blaming Francisco for not doing enough to plan for enrollment growth. In December 2004, Francisco’s contract renewal squeaked by with a 3-2 vote, with a school board election on the horizon that threatened to turn the tide against him.

There are some big differences between Francisco’s former district and Chico.

Most notably, Murrieta is building schools and passing bonds, while in Chico plunging enrollment led to two schools being closed last year and a 1998 bond for a new high school has gone largely unused because there’s no money to staff one if it were built.

Francisco said enrollment decline and growth have elements in common. “I think both situations call for a real open mind, a creative approach.”

Also, while some of Chico’s schools are struggling to meet state testing goals, Murrieta Unified’s scores exceed the state target—the highest average Academic Performance Index (API) scores in California in 2004. “There’s no question that parent education level and socioeconomics are a factor,” Francisco said. “[But] we are very dedicated.”

Anderson said, “He’ll be able to make the transition. The same skills that served him there will serve him here.”

The Murrieta district also had a media and communications specialist, whereas the CUSD has no one handling PR exclusively.

Francisco said he doesn’t need a buffer. “I’m very used to working with the press,” he said. “I think that’s important.”

He’s also confident he can broker good relations with the unions. His key to high morale in the face of budget cuts is “have things be as transparent as possible.”

George Young, president of the Chico Unified Teachers Association, sat on the Superintendent Search Advisory Council and said he found Francisco to be witty, likeable and supportive of including teachers in decision-making.

But he added that his union counterparts in Murrieta don’t seem sad to see Francisco go. “I believe, in a way, we’re getting a cleaned-up version of Dr. Brown,” Young said. “But I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Scott Brown resigned mid-contract in April, but is staying on until Sept. 29 and will attend the Oct. 5 board meeting, Francisco’s first. Brown, who eventually mellowed, was slow to embrace the idea of working with the public, particularly the media, when it came to controversial issues.

Watts said that, like Brown, Francisco is “fairly strong-willed.” For example, when Watts lobbed what he thought was a “zinger” at Francisco, the man stewed about it overnight and came back with a well-thought-out response.

“We even went through role-playing where we positioned ourselves as ‘bad guys'—people having problems,” Watts said, praising Francisco’s communication skills.

Board members expect the $170,000 plus benefits will raise some hackles and inevitable comparisons with how much it would have cost to keep a school open or save year-round education.

But Watts said Francisco, who was making $162,000 plus a benefits package worth nearly $60,000, “is actually taking a pay cut coming here.”

“I know it seems like a huge number compared to a lot of salaries in the area, and it is,” Watts said. “We felt we had no choice.”

“There are relatively few people who have that experience and can do that job,” Anderson said.

The California School Boards Association, which in 1999 found Brown on its second try, was again hired to handle this search. Watts said Francisco wasn’t head-hunted; “he sought us out.”

The board, along with the nine-member advisory council, interviewed five applicants and then asked two back: Francisco and a man from the Sacramento area.

“Chet had everything,” Watts said.