Superintendent Winfred Roberson probably lasted longer than many superintendents. Like all human beings, he had his strengths and weaknesses.
From my perspective his biggest strength was he was a genuine person, well-meaning, and, for the most part, an honest broker. His mistakes were honest ones, born out of the combination of inexperience and challenging times.
He saw the district through the last of the Great Recession and its aftermath, and its transition to better days. On his watch, the community would step up three times to renew parcel taxes, a scandal led to the resignation of a board member, and a smooth process to appoint his replacement was set in place.
Despite the acrimony surrounding the AIM issue, he and his team would put forward a plan that gained five votes, even as many in the community felt that the district was undermining the program.
The district is now looking to replace Winfred Roberson after six years. While the budgetary challenges remain omnipresent, this is really a district in transition in a lot of ways.
As the district seeks input on the next superintendent, I wanted to give my thoughts on the challenges that that superintendent will need to face.
To me, the biggest issue facing the district is the Achievement Gap. For many people, DJUSD is a strong school district and our schools are a reason many people, including myself, have made Davis their home. But the district unfortunately does not equally serve every student. The district is looking towards LCAP (Local Control and Accountability Plan) and Common Core as ways to help alleviate this gap.
But part of what we need to start to understand is that the district that we have is changing rapidly. It may come as a surprise, but as the district looks to grow to 9000 students in the near future, the majority of those students may no longer be white.
There is increasing diversity in this district and, along with it, an increasing Title One population.
Along with the Achievement Gap, school climate for children of color has long been an issue. I often point to the most visible sign of that, the parents who came forward in December 2012 at the Human Relation Commission’s Breaking the Silence of Racism to discuss the treatment of their kids in the schools.
Many people point to Winfred Roberson, an African American superintendent, and Will Brown, Principal of Davis High, another African American, and wonder how there can be a perceived race issue in the district. My experience with Winfred Roberson is that he understandably was reluctant to carry the African American mantle. This isn’t a criticism, but he wanted to be seen as the superintendent, not the black superintendent.
I believe that the issue of the Achievement Gap is wrapped into the issue of school climate and bullying (which is not limited by any means to one race, ethnicity, or subgroup). While I agree with an approach like LCAP that can allocate resources into these issues, I don’t think money and programs alone will solve these problems.
The second big issue is by no means limited to the school district and that is the trust issue. The Nancy Peterson scandal and the poor handling of it by the school district and school board undermined community trust in the district. For some, the handling of the AIM issue continues to undermine community trust in the district.
For me, the quote came from September 2014, as Alan Fernandes, a candidate for the school board, noted that rebuilding trust is critical because, without trust, the community is not going to continue to support parcel tax expenditures that enable the school district to fiscally stay afloat.
He would later tell the Vanguard, “The recent situation surrounding Nancy Peterson’s resignation brought to focus the issue of trust and conflicts of interest for school board trustees.”
The trust issue goes far deeper than one single issue or whether that school board member created a conflict of interest with her actions and interactions with a district employee.
The school district continues to heavily rely on parcel tax money for its operating expenses. For reasons I don’t really understand, the numbers show that the district receives less than state average per pupil costs without the parcel tax and, with the parcel tax, the district merely gets up to average. In a more ideal world, I would be advocating that we move toward doubling the parcel tax in order to get the district up to a financing level that exemplifies our community’s commitment to greatness in our schools.
The reality is that the district has to take a piece of the pie that is going to be increasingly strained with both city of Davis and Yolo County needs, and to get the voters to support a new parcel tax that at least renews current levels is going to take some work.
Despite the strong support of the community, margins of passage in the three elections shows the margins are alarmingly thin. Measure A in 2011, as we have noted, was beset with controversy and passed by only 89 votes. Both Measure C and Measure E were passed with greater margins. Measure C, in spring 2012, had a 972-vote margin while Measure E, in November 2012, had a 710-vote margin.
But in both cases, if just 1000 people switched their votes in those elections, the measures would have failed. One thousand people is a lot, but not insurmountable.
Restoring trust will be crucial to passing future parcel taxes. And while board members rightly point out that threats to the parcel tax are self-defeating to parents, frustrated parents see at least the threat of opposition as their own leverage on the district.
With a two-thirds vote requirement it doesn’t take a lot of parental anger to put a new parcel tax in real jeopardy.
Those are the issues I see as paramount.
What am I looking for in a superintendent?
With due respect to the current employees in the district, I was relieved that the board has put forth the money to do a full search for the next superintendent rather than simply hiring from within. I would prefer we hire from outside of the district as I believe the district would benefit from new thinking and a new approach.
I recognize that we may not get our choice in this regard, but I would prefer that we hire someone who has some experience as a superintendent. DJUSD is a difficult place to cut your teeth on as a superintendent, as there are a lot of community-based demands and scrutiny. I thought Winfred Roberson at times had a difficult transition.
Third, as good as James Hammond was, he was always a short-termer – in fact, his family never moved to Davis. Having a superintendent for two or three years really is less than ideal. Winfred Roberson was here for six years, and while that too seems short, understand that not only is that longer than most superintendents, the city of Davis went through three city managers and two interim city managers during Mr. Roberson’s tenure.
Can DJUSD hire an outside superintendent who moves to Davis and commits to long-term, when they can’t afford the kind of compensation that either James Hammond or Winfred Roberson are making in larger districts down south? That is the difficulty of this process, but the greatness of this district may rest on our district’s ability to thread the needle.
—David M. Greenwald reporting