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Look for Supt. with Heart, Brains and Courage, Education Activists Tell Board

By Jorge Casuso

Commitment, courage, honesty, brains, strength and forthrightness.

Those were among the qualities rattled off by a dozen speakers Tuesday night who told the School Board -- as well as two board members elect who took seats on the dais -- what it should look for in a new superintendent.

The speakers joined the more than 200 groups and individuals who have weighed in during the early stages of a nationwide search to find a replacement for Supt. Neil Schmidt, who will retire in June.

Their comments will be taken into account during the search, said Lee Pasquarella, the consultant hired by the board to find a new superintendent. Those issues mentioned most frequently will then be incorporated in a report, as well as into a brochure that will be sent to applicants.

"We've talked to as many people as we can," Pasquarella said. "We've attempted to talk to cheer leaders and fans, and those who have other opinions.... There will not be an attempt to include every item that I've heard. We'll accurately reflect those things that were most frequently mentioned."

Tuesday's speakers addressed many of the same concerns and touted many of the qualities Pasquarella has been hearing education activists mention during a month of interviews.

John Petz, a longtime critic of the district, said the new superintendent should be "a team builder, a facilitator, honest, decent, fair," someone whose "word can be taken and put faith and trust in. Let's look for someone who welcomes advocacy, who sees an outspoken community as a signal of health."

Joanne Leavitt, a longtime education activist who is participating in the third search for a superintendent, agreed that Santa Monica needs a special kind of superintendent, one open to the views of a passionately involved community.

"We have to find someone who fits Santa Monica," Leavitt told the board. "Santa Monica is so different. The amount of input, the passion they feel. We need to have someone who isn't put off by that, who isn't frightened.

"We need to engage this person enough so they can say, 'I don't want that,' before they're hired," Leavitt said, then jokingly added that the district "needs someone who also walks on water."

Abby Arnold, another longtime community activist, also stressed the need for a progressive thinker "able to match wits with this community."

"We need a progressive person who can understand our community and has a commitment to alternative education," Arnold said. She said one of the new superintendent's key qualities must be "courage, because it can be a very difficult job."

Other speakers focused on areas of particular interest to many parents, such as early childhood education, child care, the arts and special education.

"The new superintendent will have the important task of choosing a new head of child care services," said Gleam Davis, who made an unsuccessful bid for the board last month. "We need good, solid, universally available childcare programs."

Davis also said that the new superintendent must be able to address the needs of the district's poorer students. "The needs of working families," Davis said, "go undiscussed and, frankly, unmet."

It was a sentiment echoed by Robert Goldstein, who said there are "great disparities of wealth" in the district. The new superintendent, he said, must be "hardheaded and have the strength to insist on quality education" for all children. That person also "needs to understand that Santa Monica has extraordinary resources and extraordinary politics."

Betsy Hiteshew, who works for the University of California office of the president, where she is a specialist in early childcare education, echoed many of Davis' concerns. The superintendent should have the "wisdom and vision to understand that education begins in early childhood years."

"An even greater commitment will be needed," Hiteshew said. "Early childhood education programs are in jeopardy. Lobbying the state is necessary."

Parent Jonathan Penzer, who has worked as a stage manager, warned the board not to be taken in by an impressive audition.

"Some can do a good audition but not be able to take on the role," Penzer said.

Amy Fowler, who as a teacher at John Adams Middle School appreciated Superintendent Schmidt's visits to her classroom, called for someone who was committed and out in the field, instead of holed up in a district office.

"The superintendent has always known his staff," Fowler said. "He uses my first name and comes to the classroom."

Teachers Association president Harry Keiley said the new superintendent should "value teachers" and be able to work with the union and listen to its concerns.

The new superintendent, Keiley said, should be able to "solve problems, look for solutions, be proactive and include people.

"It is critical that there be a better working relationship between the superintendent and the leadership of the teachers' union," Keiley said. "Without that, it will be very difficult to move forward."

Before the speakers addressed the board, board members elect Maria Leon Vazquez and Mike Jordan (who will be sworn in next week) took seats on the dais. Jose Escarce, who was elected to the third empty seat on the seven-member board, declined to join the others, saying he wasn't feeling well. Escarce listened to the speakers from the front row.

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