By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Former Superintendent David Murphy had to go. He couldn’t answer basic questions to the school board about what happened to an amount of money that the board was led to believe, indeed assured, would be going to renovations at King High. This was in 2006.
In 2007, the district was excited to announce the hiring of James Hammond after a long national search. What they didn’t know was that Hammond’s hiring would become the first of a series of relatively short tenures of superintendent — James Hammond, Winfred Roberson, and now John Bowes. Each was hired with some fanfare. Each took a position at a new school district and left.
I was not always a fan of John Bowes. My enduring memory of him will likely be sitting at meetings where he literally read his notes to me. He was not a great public speaker, preferring just to read his reports at times. His administration was difficult for reporters to deal with and lacked openness.
It was a time of great turmoil. He started during the conflict over the future of the AIM program (and largely ended the problem). He presided over the shutdown of the district — and at times sloppy and contentious handling of distance learning — and ultimate re-opening with community members up in arms.
We saw the teacher compensation issue — which well preceded him — explode and the community once again step up to support a new parcel tax. The passage of the parcel tax provided a critical boost to the district.
On the plus side, when he took over as superintendent he presided over an almost entirely white male upper administration. Slowly, and without fanfare, the administration looks very different than it did in 2016 — Laura Juanitas, Amari Watkins, Derek Brothers, Rody Boonchouy, Ricardo Perez — women and people of color.
Now we face a new hiring situation. Matt Best becomes the interim superintendent. The district has a choice. Best is a capable person, having risen from a teacher to a principal to the Associate Superintendent at DJUSD. Unlike the last three superintendents, he is a guy with roots in the community, who will probably not be looking to jump to a Southern California district to return home.
Best would bring the potential at least for stability to the district. Five years is not enough time to implement a long-term vision at the school districts. And DJUSD is greatly in need of long-term vision and leadership. How do you provide long-term vision when, every four or five years, a superintendent is leaving, you spend likely a year with an interim superintendent and then have a new one that takes a year or two to get up to speed.
Think about it, by the time John Bowes was up to speed and familiar with the district, he would have about one year before the world turned upside down in 2020 with the pandemic.
Matt Best brings some strengths to this, if he is indeed interested in becoming the next permanent superintendent — he has been here, he knows the staff and the system, and provides stability.
Some will argue that if we need an agent for change, hiring from within is the wrong way to go. We need new thinking, and that’s going to be difficult if you have a continuation hire.
On the other hand, we know there are other considerations as well.
We saw last summer what happened when the school board simply appointed someone to fill the board vacancy, based on experience and perhaps continuity. The parents immediately arose to erase the appointment — they wanted more diversity on the board.
That will be an important consideration — although two of the previous three superintendents have been people of color.
On the other hand, it is worth mentioning that none of the previous superintendents or interim superintendents have been women.
Aside from demographic considerations, DJUSD as I have argued is a district at tremendous crossroads.
The district faces declining enrollment and a multi-year budget deficit. Long-term declining enrollment is a serious problem and the district has never worked with the governance of the City of Davis to look at ways to bolster housing for families and make housing for teachers and employees more affordable — another consideration for teacher compensation issues.
The district has been disadvantaged in its funding scheme from the state, and as a result has become more and more reliant on parcel taxes. These parcel taxes have provided a patch for immediate funding losses, but the district needs a long-term vision on how to adequately fund its schools. It can’t do that with a series of short to intermediate term superintendents.
Finally, the district must look at the educational services it provides and make serious decisions about how it can remain a top-tiered district.
One thing is clear — the district needs to figure out a way to create a long-term vision to maintain its excellence in education, find more sustainable funding schemes, and figure out a way to create the kind of stability in staffing and leadership that it needs to thrive.
A lot is riding on the next hiring — the district and community have important work to do and vital questions to answer.
—David M. Greenwald reporting