Last Thursday evening, the Shoreline Unified School District’s Board of Trustees convened a special meeting at a private home to discuss releasing the superintendent, Tom Stubbs, at the end of his first year on the job. When it appeared his contract would not be renewed, Mr. Stubbs submitted his resignation.
The abrupt resignation—accepted unanimously by the six board members present—angered parents because of a lack of transparency and demoralized staff now unsure of their leadership. As the district sorts through major overhauls like implementing the Common Core standards,
adapting state funding formulas and writing a Local Control and Accountability Plan, the board’s decision imposes another major change, for which no trustee has offered an explanation.
“I had hoped of continuing to work with all of you to take and make [Shoreline] an even better and more wonderful place to be for students and staff,” Mr. Stubbs wrote in his resignation letter. “What I have attempted to do beyond all other things is to build trust and transparency amongst all of the stakeholders in this district.… [M]y only hope is that this work continues.”
In a February interview on KWMR, Mr. Stubbs said he had been eyeing the Shoreline district for nearly a decade while he was a superintendent in Napa Valley. “The job of my dreams became available last spring,” he said on the air.
He assumed his post in July after Stephen Rosenthal stepped down from a joint position as superintendent and principal at Tomales High School. With too much work for one person, the job was split into a full-time principal and a half-time superintendent.
“Due to budget constraints, we’ve been trying to reduce the administrative part of our budget. Everybody at a school wants to spend for programs, for teachers for the kids, so we reduced the position to 50 percent,” Jane Healy, the board president, explained, adding that extra workdays were added to finish the required work.
The superintendent’s duties are closely tied to his relationship with the board: he is the lens through which trustees receive information about programs and input from teachers and families, and he is the filter through which board policies are enacted. The responsibilities include preparing the district budget, recommending job candidates and evaluating current staff, developing a facilities plan and managing serious disciplinary matters.
This year, Mr. Stubbs drafted the Local Control and Accountability Plan, which sets out annual goals for the district’s students. He hired a special education director, transportation director and technology coordinator. He also continued the district’s efforts to develop pre-K through third-grade education in collaboration with the Marin Community Foundation, “sort of a head start for where the next change in education is going to go,” said Don Jen, the foundation’s program director for education.
Most important was Mr. Stubbs’s willingness to listen to concerns, staff said at a Site Council meeting at West Marin School on Tuesday.
“I feel like for the first time, someone was really communicating with teachers at our school, really listening to find out what our needs are,” said Sue Gonzalez, a reading intervention teacher. “Half-time or full-time, this was the first time that I had felt this way.”
Parents, too, commented on his presence in the district in a joint letter asking for the board’s decision to be rescinded.
“[Mr. Stubbs’s] positive leadership and presence was helping to heal real concerns we have had for many years about the direction of this district,” a letter from the West Marin-Inverness School Parent Teacher Student Association, School Site Council and English Language Advisory Council said. “He supports our community’s hopes and aspirations for West Marin and Inverness School by showing up at staff meetings, school functions and parent meetings. He seeks out feedback and is a good listener. He does all of this while working more hours than required of his part-time contract. In all honesty, we are stunned by Board’s decision. We do not understand the reasons for Tom’s dismissal and we feel dismissed that our school community was not solicited for feedback about his review.”
Mr. Stubbs’s performance was evaluated and goals were set in at least six closed sessions of the board in September, November, December, January and twice in March.
“Usually [in our evaluation of superintendents], we talk to site administrators, teachers, the [chief business official] in the district office,” Tim Kehoe, a trustee and former board president, explained. “Not as much from the community. It’s mainly the people that Tom is dealing with on a day-to-day basis.”
The superintendent is the only school employee to be evaluated directly by trustees, who do not necessarily have a background in education. Having a group of evaluators rather than a single one also “often results in differing performance expectations and conflicting perspectives on the superintendent’s performance that get resolved wither by ‘averaging’ the varying opinions or presenting the superintendent with all the individual board members’ opinions and ratings,” a 2010 guide from the American Association of School Administrators says. Yet the process is so important that the A.A.S.A. primer advises superintendents to negotiate the details of the evaluation process before they sign a contract.
The content of individual evaluations is confidential, but the specific criteria and method by which the Shoreline school board evaluates superintendents need not be. Ms. Healy would not provide a blank copy of the evaluation form to the Light, saying she wanted the board’s approval but could not achieve it outside of a public meeting without violating the Brown Act. But, she said, the board’s evaluation is similar to that of the California School Board Association, which consists of three parts: progress toward district goals, professional and personal qualities and relationship with the board.
“Really, none of use wish to, or are, hiding anything at any time,” Ms. Healy said. “Our board is pretty much an open book.”
The special board meeting on April 10 was held at Jill Manning-Sartori’s house in Tomales. After a roll call (trustee Kegan Stedwell was absent) and a flag salute, the meeting was closed to the public to discuss Mr. Stubbs’s contract. Unlike previous agendas, this item did not list the superintendent position specifically, but referenced only a public employee’s “discipline/dismissal/release.”
After some discussion, Ms. Healy said it became clear to her that the board was unlikely to renew Mr. Stubbs’s contract for another year and was prepared to issue formal notice before an automatic renewal would be triggered by California law. Ms. Healy called a recess and spoke with Mr. Stubbs about the likely outcome.
“I gave him an opportunity to resign,” Ms. Healy said. “He chose to resign.”
Mr. Stubbs’s employment contract will terminate on June 30.
What has frustrated some staff and parents is the lack of communication. Trustees declined to reveal what was said in closed session, but the void has led to uneasy questions. What did Mr. Stubbs do, or not do, to meet the board’s disapproval?
“The fact that the community is somewhat surprised at this move, to me, is a vote of confidence in our ability to hold confidential personnel matters confidential,” Ms. Healy said. “There’s no blab and no gossip. We’re having truly confidential evaluations, which is what every employee in the school district wants us to do. It’s a really good strength for our board that we take confidential employee matters seriously.”
But the policy action behind closed doors also seems out of step with public statements about Mr. Stubbs from board members, prompting criticism for seeming to unnecessarily alter the leadership after years of administrative turnover.
“I have nothing but respect and good things to say about Tom Stubbs and to thank him for his work for the district, particularly this year. This year was the first year of the Local Control and Accountability Program. He started us on the path to that, and we appreciate that,” Ms. Healy said. “Over and over again, I’ve heard he really had a willingness to talk to people. He had an open-door policy that’s been very helpful.”
Mr. Kehoe commented, “For the time constraints that he had, I think he did a super job. …It’s been a full plate for him, and I think he did a very good job for it.”
Within the next month or so, the board will decide whether to commence the search for a new superintendent or appoint an interim administrator with support from the county Office of Education. The trustees will also likely debate whether to increase the position from half-time to two-thirds or three-quarters-time.
“If we’re going to go for more days on a contract, I think it’s only prudent for us to open it up to see what other options are available,” Mr. Kehoe added. “If you’re going to do that for another job, there’s no reason not to do so for the superintendent.”
In reviewing their policies, the board discovered that it had not evaluated itself recently. Ms. Healy will ask the outgoing superintendent to give an honest assessment of the board’s ability to meet the district’s expectations.
“With an outgoing superintendent, it’s a good opportunity for us to get a critical evaluation of our performance,” she said. “It will be an important step, even if our ears burn off. To me it seems wrong that the board is expecting evaluations on employees but never really evaluated themselves. I mean to fix that.”