Size Doesn’t Matter

Size Doesn’t Matter

New PUSD Superintendent Edwin Diaz says his first shot at running a large school system isn’t going to change him or his operating style

By Justin Chapman , Kevin Uhrich 04/12/2007

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In a perfect world, no one would be asked to deal with the legacy of one of the worst administrations in local public school history, which was what Pasadena had under disgraced former Superintendent Percy Clark, who finally left the district last year under a cloud.

Needless to say, Clark has left his replacement a swirling pile of unresolved controversies to handle. But even facing such daunting realities as downward spiraling enrollment, which determines school funding, probably more budget shortfalls, and any number of other possible crises with district teachers and administrators, Edwin Diaz says he's up to the job.

The 53-year-old Diaz was born in Gilroy and served as assistant superintendent of the Oak Grove School District in San Jose before taking the reins as superintendent of the Gilroy Unified School District in 2000. While there, according to a recent profile in the Los Angeles Times, he taught social science and served as head football coach. Diaz took charge of Greater Pasadena schools in March amid high hopes that he would be able to overcome the mistakes of the past and instill new hope for public schools.

Giving the deal a little more oomph than just best wishes is a hefty salary: $220,000 a year, a pay range that is among the highest in the country and nearly $50,000 more a year than what he was making in Gilroy, along with numerous perks, including a car. But Diaz, according to some, has proven himself to be worth the investment.

“My impression is he is a person who has inspired the entire [Gilroy] community to support public education, to help young people succeed in the classroom and then in the course of their lives,” said Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, a longtime Pasadena Educational Foundation member who in December traveled north to the garlic capital of the world along with school board members, Sierra Madre Mayor John Buchanan and Altadena Town Council Chairman Ken Balder to learn more about Diaz prior to his hiring.

  “I'm anxious for him to start establishing working relationships within his organization and in the community because I am confident he will have a positive impact on the schools,” Bogaard said.

Others also seem pleased with Diaz's selection.

"Mr. Diaz can be a catalyst for pushing it all together. He's got to be a good politician, a good manager, a good listener and a good collaborator, and those are all things I've heard about him," Occidental College political science professor and PUSD parent Peter Dreier told the Times back in December.

Except for size — Gilroy has only 10,100 students, nearly half as many as Pasadena Unified — the Pasadena district is similar to Gilroy in significant ways. One is that Gilroy is located near Silicon Valley, an area filled with scientists, engineers and other professionals in the computer world who demand high educational standards for their children. Pasadena faces similar demands from parents, some of whom work at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech and other institutions of advanced learning.

But complicating fulfillment of that objective is the fact that Gilroy remains a largely agricultural region and contains a large working-class and underclass population. And some in that community have not been as impressed as Bogaard, Dreier and others with Diaz's management style or his ability to satisfy all parents.

The Web site Republic of Gilroy, which closely monitors school doings in that city (http://rog.typepad.com/home/2006/03/accountability_.html), reported on an April 2004 incident in which a teacher was fired in front of her students the day after she publicly complained to the school board about the district's practice of passing students who don't make the grade — what educrats call “social promotion” — and the allegedly unfair way teachers were being treated.

After much community uproar, Diaz formed a special accountability task force, which came to be called a “task farce” after he appointed himself, another board member and other district insiders to participate in the final determination that the district did nothing wrong in its treatment of the teacher, who was later awarded an $18,000 out-of-court settlement with the district, according to other published accounts.

“He is a lousy policymaker, and he ignores critics, but Diaz excels at spin management. It helps that he is officially off-limits in the local press and that he has five willing dupes on the school board … to enable him,” the Republic of Gilroy concluded.

But Diaz had his supporters in Gilroy, among them the district's teachers union.

"As a superintendent, he had to work on a lot of different areas," Michelle Nelson, head of the Gilroy Teachers Association, told a reporter with the Gilroy Dispatch. “He had to look at facilities, at compensation, at student achievement, and he tried to implement an accountability system," said Nelson, who according to the Dispatch gave Diaz an "A-/B+" for his six years in charge.

Here in Pasadena, it will be interesting to see whether any of Diaz's top managers in Gilroy will make the trip south to be with their old boss in Pasadena. According to Republic of Gilroy, colleagues who left the district around the time Diaz decided to come to Pasadena include the human relations director/assistant superintendent who fired the aggrieved teacher in front of her students and then had her escorted from the school by police.

During a recent interview with the Weekly, Diaz spoke at length about creating a sense of togetherness between Pasadena, Sierra Madre and unincorporated Altadena, where some residents have begun efforts to secede from the PUSD.

Diaz acknowledged that he faces a daunting challenge in a number of areas. But he believes the recipe for success here is the same as it was for him in Gilroy: establishing relationships with as many parents, teachers, community leaders and taxpaying stakeholders as possible.

All that, and lots of hard work.

“I plan to be involved at every school site,” Diaz said, “so I won't leave any one community out.”

Pasadena Weekly:   Gilroy's a smaller district than Pasadena. How do you think you'll adjust to a bigger, more spread-out district that includes two other communities? What differences and challenges do you anticipate?

Edwin Diaz: Size is a big consideration. One of the things that I noticed already is that Pasadena is a much smaller community as far as relationships; longtime residents and people who went to school in the public school system are now teaching here, so a lot of that smaller town community feel is welcomed, because I thought I'd be losing some of that. However, it is more of challenge, especially having three different communities that are served by the PUSD school system. That's going to require me spending more time meeting with representatives from each of those communities and extending myself in order to establish partnerships and create a sense of collaboration and trying to meet the needs of the separate communities. At the same time, I think there's a huge opportunity to pull the three communities together around one direction and focus and approach to improvement for the school district. It is going to be more of a challenge, but I think with a challenge you can also identify some opportunities. One of the pieces of advice I received from somebody was, the difference between 10,000 and 20,000 may seem like a lot, but don't change my operating style. Don't let people tell me that it's too big to collaborate, to establish relationships, and to try to pull people together around a common vision, because size shouldn't get in the way of that.

What's the No. 1 issue or goal you want to address or achieve during your first year with PUSD?

There are a number of immediate challenges: the budget, declining enrollment, charter schools, district configuration by grade level, size of schools, [and] a consistent district philosophy around choice vs. neighborhood. All those immediately come to mind. I'm starting with, at least in these first 90 days, trying to get to know the schools, the instructional program that kids receive, the people who work in the schools, the level of instruction, the site administrators, what the challenges and successes are. [I'm also trying] to make connections with individuals in the community and representatives from each of the two cities and the town council, and trying to establish myself as somebody who's a leader who focuses in on kids first, wants to collaborate but is also focused on results. One of the immediate issues is how to deal with the management audit, which I see as a great set of recommendations to help guide me as I start to look at some things we can do internally to improve operations.

Will outside organizations, such as the Stupski Foundation or the Pasadena Educational Foundation, influence your decisions as superintendent?

My philosophy on working with outside organizations, foundations and other entities has always been that before we truly engage with those groups, we need to establish what our purpose, focus and priorities are, and then engage in partnerships and relationships to address our most critical needs. So I'm really not interested in expanding the number of partnerships if they don't meet with our core vision and our priorities as a district.

We've heard there will be a $6 million deficit and more school closures over the next few years. How will you address declining enrollment and growing budget issues?

Currently the budget two years out [has] a $3 million gap. What we're immediately doing is putting together some ideas as far as how to enhance revenue or recommendations for reducing expenditures. But when it comes to school closure and trying to operate more efficiently as a district, that's a process that's going to take place over the course of this coming year. And what you just mentioned as far as school closure or any of those efficiencies really has to do with the size of our schools, grade configuration, the number of schools we have and what our overall purpose and district-wide structure is for our schools. Once that conversation happens and some decisions are made, then we can ask what that means for the number of schools that we currently have. But the other part of it is maximizing our enrollment and attendance, putting in place some ideas around improved daily attendance, making sure that we're operating as efficiently as we can, and also being able to identify some funds for improving compensation of employees down the road, because it's going to be very difficult to move forward in this type of very competitive environment without at some point in the next couple of years granting some type of compensation for workers.

What have you heard about the citizen-sponsored Altadena Unified School District petition effort? Any thoughts about that?

I've heard it mentioned but I don't have any details. My question would be: What are the issues and what are the concerns that led a group of residents to develop a petition in order to start their own district? Is it because of dissatisfaction with PUSD? Have they somehow felt alienated from the school district? What are the specific issues? Because my guess is that what I want from the schools located in Altadena is probably what they would want with a separate school district.

What will you do to include Altadena and its community leaders in future district policy decisions that affect them?

I plan to, first of all, be aware of the issues of all the schools by being at the schools enough and being involved with the community enough so I understand if any one community feels their needs aren't being addressed. I clearly get that PUSD serves three communities. When I went to the Town Council meeting, [it] was probably the first step in what I hope is a more collaborative relationship between Altadena and the school district. So I intend to keep connections with all three communities.

What do you have in mind for the district's four closed elementary schools in the short and long term? Would you like to see them remain designated for educational use, or do you have other ideas?

I believe from my short time here that there're a couple of issues that need to be addressed. I believe that every school site needs a more specific updated facilities use plan. We go into every school site and get a detailed plan about the facility needs. … My approach is going to be, first of all, that we take care of our schools and we maintain enough capacity to accommodate a shift in enrollment where in the future there may be growth. Then we try to maximize the value of all the other sites, whether that's some type of long-term lease that gets revenue coming into the district, or it's some joint-use partnership, or it's some development plan that addresses a critical need that PUSD has but also gives us an opportunity to maximize the value and create revenue for the district. So after you take care of the school sites, and you have that plan not only for current students but also future students, then I think it's really about making the best business decisions for the district with the other assets that the district has in its possession. There's been a lot of discussion about [the district office] building. My thought about the district office has always been, if there's an available school site or whatever, we can operate pretty much anywhere as long as it's a central location and if we're able to create an opportunity where the district gets an enormous amount of capital to be able to use to deal with some of the other needs. I've always wanted to explore those options. You read in the management audit just a basic recommendation of $4 million for technology. That's a critical need, so where does that money come from? You have to look at what assets you currently have to see if there's any way of dealing with those needs.

If you could offer one criticism of the board or the district, what would it be?

I would say strategic, improvement and operational planning needs to be much more consistent and ongoing. When you have issues like declining enrollment, facilities needs, technology needs, management structures, at some point those have to be identified as areas of improvement, and you have to continually plan every year to address them. My comment would be you can't let any of those systems or issues go unaddressed for very many years, because then you get in the position of having to catch up and make major changes that could be hard for everybody to accept.  

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