Public input helps shape leadership profile for San Dieguito’s superintendent search

San Dieguito Union High School District administration building.
San Dieguito Union High School District administration building.
(Karen Billing)

A strong communicator, a problem solver, a forward thinker who understands the needs of diverse learners, someone who maintains a culture of high expectation. A leader with heart, humility and courage.

These are just some of the characteristics and qualities of the leadership profile for San Dieguito Union High School District’s next superintendent.

At a special board meeting on March 23, the board adopted the leadership profile for its superintendent search, incorporating the findings and themes from public input sessions and an online survey.

“It’s a very clear picture that our next superintendent needs to be a collaborator,” said board Clerk Katrina Young. “More than just a team leader, we need someone who’s a team builder.”

The application window for San Dieguito’s top job closes on March 31 and the search firm Education Support Services Group(ESS) said they already have a half dozen applicants with 10 more who were waiting to see the final leadership profile to see if the job was a good fit. After candidate vetting and selection, the board plans to hold the first interviews April 29-30.

According to consultant Suzette Lovely, the leadership profile provides insight that helps inform the board’s selection and is incorporated into the report used for candidate recruitment and screening.

Public outreach for the superintendent search began in March and a total of 816 people participated in an online survey and 161 people took part in individual group interviews and community forums. Public engagement is high: During the 2021 search, over 700 people responded to the online survey and in 2018, only 241 people did.

Consultant Gary Rutherford said “things got visceral” during the two town halls— they heard many perspectives and points of view and there were some disagreements among participants. He commented that the students involved in the process were “remarkable” and were very forthcoming.

The leadership profile details the district’s strengths and challenges—participants described San Dieguito’s strengths as its “amazing” people, strong programs and choices, “wonderful” parent and community support and that the district is a desirable place to live and work. Per the survey, 75.9% feel the quality of teaching and learning is excellent or above average, 20% believe it is average, 3% below average and 1% poor.

“Those are some good numbers during challenging times,” Rutherford said. “It’s a great place to move forward from.”

Division, distractions and politics were listed among the top challenges the district faces—there have been an unprecedented number of controversies and they have been polarizing in the community, employees and board, Rutherford said. While the consultants heard about perceived division among the board and community members, they did not hear that the problems extend to the individual school sites.

There are challenges around communication, mistrust, strained relationships and a lack of direction and strategic planning. People shared there is not a clear vision of where the forward momentum is as the changes in leadership have resulted in shifting priorities and direction. Per the profile, 67% of participants were looking for a leader that fosters a climate of trust and mutual respect.

Among the characteristics and qualities listed in the leadership profile, trustees Michael Allman and Phan Anderson wanted it to be clear that the next superintendent understands that excellence in education is a top priority. The profile included characteristics such as a leader who is thoughtful yet decisive, is responsive rather than reactive, is a champion for all students and understands public relations and effective messaging.

The word “public relations” made Allman a little uncomfortable as he didn’t believe there should be any spin or that the district should try to minimize issues— communication should be clear, direct and honest, he said. Young suggested alternative language that they were seeking a superintendent who was articulate, perceptive, approachable and who understands the value of messaging—“We want a superintendent who will foster and promote good communication within the community.”

As they discussed the leadership profile and the strengths presented, Anderson shared concerns that the outreach did not capture the full picture of the district: “We definitely don’t have everything for our students.” She said at least one school has had a “significant” drop in test scores and she’s not sure they would agree that the district’s teaching is above average.

“We have strengths…There are many things we do get right….but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have things to work on and improve on,” remarked Vice President Jane Lea Smith. “We do have work to do, there are places we need to improve and hopefully the incoming superintendent is excited by the opportunity to really make a difference.”