San Dieguito selects superintendent search firm


The San Dieguito Union High School District board is moving ahead on its search for a new superintendent. At a special board meeting on Sunday, Feb. 5, the board interviewed three search firms and picked Education Support Services Group (ESS) to help guide them through the process in the coming months.

The vote was 3-2 with trustees Michael Allman and Phan Anderson opposed. The $25,800 contract with ESS will be brought back before the board for approval at the Feb. 13 board meeting.

The district received seven proposals from superintendent search firms and on Jan. 31 picked their preferred three to interview: Cosca Group, ESS, and Leadership Associates.

Dr. Suzette Lovely and Dr. Gary Rutherford of ESS are interviewed by the San Dieguito board on Feb. 5.
Dr. Suzette Lovely and Dr. Gary Rutherford of ESS are interviewed by the San Dieguito board on Feb. 5.
(Karen Billing)

ESS’ search will be led by Dr. Suzette Lovely with Dr. Gary Rutherford. Lovely had a 35-year career working in public schools, last serving as a superintendent in Carlsbad Unified before retiring in 2016. Rutherford retired as a superintendent in 2017, capping a 40-year career in public education in California.

Lovely was a member of the search team that facilitated the placement of Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger in neighboring Solana Beach School District and ESS has done successful searches in Huntington Beach and the San Marcos Unified District, which similarly had a school board with three new members in 2021.

San Dieguito board President Rimga Viskanta liked that ESS had worked with comparable districts and situations. Viskanta also liked that the vetting process included a social media analyst to audit the candidate’s online presence and digital fingerprint. ESS’ vetting also includes a third-party criminal and background check to ensure there are no embarrassing surprises and that the candidate lives up to the district’s high expectations.

SDUHSD Vice President Jane Lea Smith said the board will need a lot of guidance to make sure they make the right choice—she believed ESS had the slight edge in being able to bring that to the table.

“We are not aligned all the time and it’s going to be a difficult decision,” Smith said.

Allman and Anderson’s preference was the Cosca Group. What appealed most to Anderson was that they provided two years of mentorship to the district at no additional cost. Given the district’s history, she felt like the two years of support provided by Cosca could be very important.

“The way I envision it now, it’s not an easy path…because our district is unique, we’ve had six superintendents in the past five and a half years,” Anderson said, including three interim superintendents in the count.

Anderson asked if ESS could provide those two years of support on the back end. While she couldn’t commit to two years on the spot, Lovely noted that she does serve as a mentor to Solana Beach Superintendent Brentlinger and talks to her frequently, for free.

ESS also facilitates a transition meeting with the new superintendent and board to assist the governance team in identifying priorities and “next steps‟. Depending on district needs and the experience of the new superintendent, ESS can also provide board governance workshops, superintendent goal-setting support and executive coaching.

ESS’ proposed timeline includes stakeholder input sessions in February, to add on to the input gathered during the district’s last search in 2021. The firm would recruit candidates through the spring with interviews tentatively scheduled at the end of April. A new superintendent could possibly start in July.

“Following times of turbulence and controversy, it’s been our experience that a well-crafted, participatory, inclusive and transparent stakeholder engagement process is an intervention in an organization,” said Rutherford. “Just listening to people, taking what they have to share, weaving it into a leadership profile where they can recognize their voice and their contribution matters…We seek to do that deeply and well.”