A City, If You Can Keep It: Lead, Follow, Or Get Out of the Way

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Richard Casavecchia
Special to the Express

Piggybacking on the topic of leadership last week, let’s look at the school district. I will start by saying that in most instances, substandard leadership is not the fault of the person in leadership if they have never been taught.

According to the Sept. 8 edition of The Express, another director level employee has departed the Winters Joint Unified School District (Winters JUSD). Josh Harris is the latest casualty at the district office.

By my count, since the hiring of Superintendent Jimenez, we have lost seven people. The Technology Director (who quit and took the same job at a district that is two hours round trip farther from her home), the Human Resources manager, two Chief Business Officers, the Assistant Superintendent was let go (and immediately hired as a Superintendent in another district), the Principal of Waggoner left, and now the Director of Special Education & Student Services has quit for another job after less than a year here.

That is a lot of high-level turnover in a single year, which is even more alarming when you realize a couple of those people were hired in the year they quit.

In Rick von Geldern’s article about the Superintendent, she was asked about turnover of several key staff positions (I read that as all of them). Superintendent Jimenez replied that “the district doesn’t have a problem maintaining key staff positions and when opportunities present themselves employees move on.” Respectfully, how would she know after a single year?

You don’t look for new opportunities if you’re happy where you are. What is the old saying — People don’t quit jobs they quit managers? This level of turnover is highly unusual for our school district.

The only position that turns over regularly is the Superintendent (every two to three years) because our school boards seem to always hire people from outside the district who use Winters JUSD, its students, faculty, and staff as a steppingstone to get “Superintendent” on their resume and move on.

Is the school board allergic to placing people in district leadership positions with a proven commitment to our community and our students unless they have no other choice? Do we only promote from within when it is an emergency?

The Superintendent’s Goals were also mentioned in the article. I looked up the goals as presented in the Sept. 2 board packet. None of the goals are specific or measurable. No key performance indicators are listed, no measurable data points, no definitive way of saying “yes this was accomplished.”

My instinct was to blame the Superintendent for these goals, but I noticed they are actually the School Board’s goals for the Superintendent. So, the problem is the school board. If these are the goals they developed with the Superintendent then it is easy to surmise that none of the involved district “leaders” have significant experience with leadership, coaching, or managing people. Perhaps instead of $40K on an equity consultant and $60K on a public relations consultant, the district should spend that money on a leadership coach.

This may not be their fault, if they were never mentored in leadership. But only one of the board members to my knowledge has any education experience so the board does not innately know what is needed. The superintendent was a teacher, but she did not mentor the board toward goals measured by irrefutable student success.

Goals must be specific. When you define success by “attend to social-emotional development,” “provide equitable access,” and “provide positive public relations” you don’t have goals, you have subjective aspirations. How do you measure those?

Why aren’t the goals to increase graduation percentage every year? What about increasing the number of students reading at or above grade level? Reducing the number of students moving to CRA (Career Readiness Academy)? Increase the average SAT/ACT score of graduating Winters High School seniors? Increase the number of students entering the high school who are at grade level?

I am curious why there is a Superintendent performance review every month, that frequency usually indicates poor performance or micromanagement. Either way, I predict that the end of year review for Superintendent Jimenez will not be based on the goals but on how the School Board feels about her. She has been set up to fail, if they so desire, because her goals cannot be measured as defined. If the school board sours on her, she will have no data points to prove she achieved her goals.

Our school board is new and inexperienced, so is our superintendent. The board president is the only person in leadership who is neither. But one person does not a board of trustees make.

Our school district could use improvement in areas for sure, but I fear the focus from our board to the district is not on student performance. The guidance seems unsatisfactory to manage the education of our children beyond passing on ideas pushed down from the state and county. Fortunately, our veteran teachers are very good at their jobs and will do their best to fill in the gaps.

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