Head of the head of the class

Why is the hiring of Sac city schools' new superintendent so messed up?

Sacramento city schools have all but offered the job of superintendent to José Banda, current chief of the Seattle city schools. Having picked their man, members of the Sacramento City Unified School District board of education headed to Seattle this week to ask people there if Banda is a good superintendent.

Which is completely backward, of course, the kind of maneuver that’s only necessary when you’re trying to keep the name of your prospective hire a secret until the deal is done. More on that shortly.

So who is José Banda? Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger described Banda’s two-year tenure as “short and rocky.” Last year, when Seattle high-school teachers boycotted the district’s standardized tests in protest of excessive testing, Banda threatened the teachers with suspension, then backed off as the boycott garnered national attention and support.

Before Seattle, Banda was superintendent of the Anaheim City School District for four years. His bio boasts 30 years in education, potentially an improvement over Sacramento’s last superintendent, reform-y businessman Jonathan P. Raymond, who had no real education background.

Banda told the Seattle press that he wasn’t looking for a job, but was approached by Sacramento’s hired headhunters and decided to take it in order to be closer to family in California. He also told Seattle public radio station KUOW, “As I near the latter part of my career, it’s an opportunity to get back into the retirement system that I spent almost my entire career in.” The district isn’t making his salary public yet; he earns $270,000 in Seattle.

It’s interesting to read coverage of Sacramento’s superintendent search by the Seattle daily media—since they feel no obligation to stick to SCUSD’s press releases. Here’s another snippet from KUOW:

“Unlike Seattle’s public superintendent search processes, Sacramento was poised to vote on Banda’s contract on Thursday before even announcing that he was a finalist.”

Wait, why is that weird? You mean there is some other way to hire a school superintendent besides a completely closed-door process where the public isn’t told anything at all about the candidates before the decision is made?

Yes, in fact, when Banda was hired in Seattle, he was one of three finalists for the job who toured schools and did interviews with community groups and members of the media before being selected.

That’s basically the opposite of Sacramento’s process. Years ago, at least a few representatives of the Sacramento district’s employee unions were involved in superintendent hires, but that practice ended with Raymond’s hire.

Community involvement in picking a superintendent is not some crunchy anarcho-socialist concept from Seattle. Just a couple of months ago, the San Juan Unified School District, headquartered in Carmichael, hired a new superintendent as well. And there again, finalists sat for interviews with a 15-member community panel made up of parents, students, teachers and other members of the public.

“What we’re doing here is not the way it has to be done,” says Nikki Milevsky, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association. We take for granted Sac City Unified’s top-down approach. “But other districts manage to do things in a more open and transparent way,” she says.

She, of course, is wary because the union’s relationship with Raymond—also hired without public or teacher input—was such a disaster. But in fact, the district does all sorts of public business behind closed doors—whether it’s hiring a superintendent, or hashing out development deals, even controversial policy matters like school closures and the CORE waiver. Too much is decided in private meetings, out of the public eye.

“I hope the district can change, and we can become a more open and collaborative district,” says Milevsky.

Despite the flawed process that led to his hire, Banda could help set a more collaborative tone. Let’s hope that some of that Seattle transparency rubbed off on him during his brief stay. Let’s hope he isn’t trying to get away from it.

One more SCUSD item: The SCUSD board deserves kudos for approving a community-driven charter school at Joseph Bonnheim Elementary School. Bonnheim was one of the campuses shuttered in last year’s egregiously mishandled school-closure process, but neighborhood leaders and parents never gave up.

As one New Joseph Bonnheim supporter put it to the school board last week, “You guys have an opportunity to undo some of the broken trust that you created when you closed that school.”

Like many observers, Bites was fairly surprised the board gave NJB its blessing. The vote was 4-3, with Jay Hansen, who previously voted to close schools, switching sides and joining with anti-closure board members and give Bonnheim a second chance. Bites can’t help but notice that Hansen is the only one of the board members facing a competitive re-election bid this year.