Following Dr. Darnise Williams’ resignation as Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) Superintendent, the Board held a special meeting at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, January 18th to hear from Dr. Eric Andrew about a potential superintendent search process. Andrew, a former superintendent for the Campbell Union School District, currently works as a partner at Leadership Associates, which calls itself “California’s premier executive search & leadership development firm.” According to Andrew, it handles 67% of superintendent searches in the state. Leadership Associates also contributed to Dr. Williams’ selection as the previous superintendent.
Andrew outlined the steps his firm would take to find an appropriate superintendent for the District. He prefaced, “One of the most important aspects of the search is that we hear from the public. You want to hear from your constituents. You want to hear from your staff. You want to hear from all of those whom the position will have influence over.”
He explained that the search is usually split into two phases. In Phase 1, he said, “We come in and we meet with a group of stakeholders that are identified through the Board. We always ask the Board to seek voices that aren’t necessarily heard in typical school district settings.” His firm would then ask them three questions: “What do you want to see in the District? What are the strengths of the District? What are the areas of growth or challenges within the District?”
Andrew did note his firm’s previous work for the District. He said, “We did conduct a community stakeholder survey almost two years ago, so we do have some data which led to the position profile. My recommendation is that we go forward with another community input session to find out if there’s any changes in the perception of the community. And that will help not only the Board, but it also helps the Superintendent know the current temperature of their community, from their staff to their Board to their city.”
Andrew said that after constructing a document to display community input, they would then compare it to the previous search’s community input document and locate similarities and differences.
However, M-A English teacher Abbie Korman remarked, “I’m not sure what will have changed since the last time you asked people, except maybe an erosion of trust in the Board. I’m curious what the incentive will be for folks to come back in again for a superintendent search and give their feedback if they’ve just done this within the past few years. How will you make sure the community feels like their voice actually matters when the superintendent we last picked was just let go?”
Ravenswood City School District Board Member Jenny Varghese Bloom echoed Korman’s confusion about the need for a second round of surveys. She said, “The needs and desires of my community have not changed. We continue to want to work for equity. Will you as a team actually listen to your whole community?”
Board Trustee Shawneece Stevenson asked Andrew to share the specifics of the community input sessions. He answered, “Typically what we’ll do is set up in the district office for a day or two based upon the availability of various stakeholder groups. We will also have an opportunity for the general staff to contribute to that document at different times. We would ask the District to provide us with a variety of students [to answer the three questions]. We want to make sure that we have a great cross-section of participants in the process.”
Andrew stressed the Board’s role in reaching out to broader communities, recommending they recruit anyone connected to the District’s development, including community service groups, city officials, and more. “It helps educate your community, in terms of the process, in a very transparent way of involving as many people as possible.”
Phase 2 is an online survey that essentially asks the same three questions as the in-person sessions and also collects data on respondents’ demographics, including employment status and parental obligations. Andrew explained, “The survey usually goes for about 10 days. Publicize in all of the various venues you use right now.” He suggested promoting the survey in district communication and even local newspapers.
Andrew identified two positive aspects of the way the online survey works: “The first one is that people can respond anonymously, so you get some very candid answers. The second is that, for those who did participate in the in-person survey [but didn’t share everything they wanted to], they get another opportunity, as well.”
Korman expressed discontent with the evaluation of the District’s needs occurring after Williams left. She said, “The concerns of the District and the Board in any unmet need should have been part of the process before pushing out a superintendent. What I’ve been hearing from the community at board meeting after board meeting is a push for a leader with cultural competence, knowledge in restorative practices, and an attention and focus on equity to ensure the success of all students, much like the focus of Dr. Williams.”
She continued, “I’d love to know the additional costs taxpayers are paying in hiring this firm for the second time in three years, if you’ll present the listening campaign data to us or if that’s also behind closed doors, and what the timeline is expected to be.”
Community member Antonio Lopez asked, “What motive do I have as a stakeholder, as your fellow partner and individual, to come to the table again and say to the tenants who have a million other things to worry about, ‘Talk to Sequoia. They’re going to listen to you. They’re going to make sure they have someone who is a champion of not just your view but of all communities.’”
Stevenson acknowledged, “The community has shared with us that transparency, trust, and communication has been really difficult. We have bruised if not broken some relationships. And so we’re wondering, is there anything else that we can do to build that trust in this process.”
Andrew responded, “I think you want to make sure you scrutinize that stakeholders list so that we ensure that we are getting not only those who are the most vocal but the speakers who are in the margins. I always emphasize finding those voices that have not been heard in the past, and sometimes that includes going out to churches or various places to talk to people who are in your community like local organizers.”
Andrew also suggested that the Board hold their own conversations with his firm about the three questions in open session to promote transparency.
The Board plans to begin work with Leadership Associates at their regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday, February 8th at 5 p.m. Andrew projects that his firm’s executive summary of the community input will be ready on March 5th.
Korman asked, “Will we have a superintendent by the end of the school year?” The community can only wonder about the District’s fate.