The Ravenswood City school board voted 3-1 on Thursday night, with Vice President Stephanie Fitch dissenting and President Tamara Sobomehin absent, to conduct an external search for the East Palo Alto district's next superintendent.
The vote came after district administrators, teachers, staff, parents and community members urged the board to look internally, which would likely result in the appointment of interim Superintendent Gina Sudaria. While they described the impact Sudaria has had on morale and reform — restoring trust and bringing new energy for the long-struggling district in a way longtime staff said they haven't experienced before — three trustees remained unconvinced.
Trustees Marielena Gaona-Mendoza, Ana Maria Pulido and Sharifa Wilson supported an external search in order to have a "fair and open and transparent process," Wilson said. She added that an internal search would be a "farce" because no other Ravenswood staff would apply.
"Internal search reads to many as a relationship-based appointment, not a merit-based appointment," Pulido said. "If anything, I think an external process would protect the interim superintendent should she be appointed."
Noting that hiring a superintendent is one of the most important responsibilities of the board, Gaona-Mendoza said, "I don't want to (do) anything that is not transparent."
Fitch made a motion to conduct an internal search that failed to get a second in support. She also moved to postpone the vote until all five board members could be present, but her colleagues did not support this. Sobomehin voiced a preference for an internal search at the board's last meeting.
"I for one don't want to continue being a board that's in disagreement with our community and our staff," Fitch said.
Sudaria was appointed this spring temporarily to lead the district after former superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff was forced to resign. Without the support of a board majority, her future remains uncertain.
"There needs to be a superintendent who is supported by a clear majority of the board ... because if they (aren't) then we're going to have a lot of problems," Wilson commented. "There will be some undermining going on."
Numerous speakers asked the board to back Sudaria as the best choice for Ravenswood's permanent superintendent. A group of administrative assistants who spoke together described her as "approachable, personable, dedicated, trustworthy." In a letter signed by more than 30 Brentwood Elementary School staff, they said she "brought hope to our district at a difficult time." Ravenswood Middle School Principal Amanda Kemp read a letter from her teachers and staff that said they feel "as if they have a voice again."
Solomon Hill, Ravenswood's director of technology, said he's purposefully not spoken publicly in support or against district leadership in his 18 years in the job.
"I realized tonight that I'd be remiss if I didn't speak up on behalf of Gina," he told the board. "I've known her 18 years. I saw her as a teacher. I saw her as a vice principal and a principal. ... At each step she was really uniquely qualified because she rose up through the ranks, she spent time in each (level), she has love for this community and is committed to this community and brought with her knowledge of the things that were good and bad each step of the way."
The question of how the district will pay for a wider, more costly superintendent search remains unanswered. The Ravenswood Education Foundation covered the total cost of the most recent search in 2013 ($22,000) with donations. But at least one major funder, the Palo Alto-based Peery Foundation, has publicly said it won't support an external search at this time. The foundation announced earlier this month a $3.5 million donation to the Ravenswood Middle School, made in part because of Sudaria's leadership.
Jenna Wachtel Pronovost, executive director of the Ravenswood Education Foundation, told the board that the organization has received nearly $5 million new donations from funders who have "observed the positive momentum and meaningful shifts in practice that have already occurred under this current leadership.
"The question around district leadership is top of mind for our donors as they know how much it impacts the daily experience of teachers and students. With a strong, well-respected and well-supported leader confirmed, I have no doubt that the $5 million could be just the beginning," she said.
The board will next have to decide the scope of its search, such as state versus nationwide, and whether to hire a consultant to manage the process.
Budget cuts loom for Ravenswood
Community concerns about the cost of a more extensive superintendent search were underscored by a presentation earlier in the board meeting about major budget cuts the district will have to make to stay solvent in the coming years.
Jim Lianides, the former superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District who is now serving as Ravenswood's interim chief business official, said in a presentation that he discovered $1 million in additional expenses that were not properly accounted for in the budget the board adopted in June.
There were more than $2 million in expenditures that weren't in the budget — including payroll being short by $300,000. Salaries and benefits, maintenance supplies, internet costs, county office special education services and non-public school placement costs were also underfunded while professional development and noon aides were "significantly overfunded," according to Lianides' presentation.
He also found about $1 million worth of expenses in the budget that "made no sense" and shouldn't have been included. That offset the additional expenses, resulting in the additional $1 million — which will roll over into future years, compounding the district's budget woes. As a district that relies heavily on state funding tied to student attendance, declining enrollment is forcing a financial reckoning for Ravenswood.
"As long as the district is declining (in enrollment), you're never done," Lianides told the board. "You can still be a very strong, viable, powerful school district getting great results for kids. You just have to look like one that is the size of the students that you serve."
He presented three scenarios for budget cuts, ranging from $500,000 to $2 million in the next two years. All three options require drawing down on $4 million in "rainy day" redevelopment funds. And in all three scenarios, the budget is still not balanced in the 2022-23 year, Lianides said.
The board followed Sudaria's recommendation to look at how to cut $750,000 from next year's budget and $1.5 million the following year. Under that option, the district would have a deficit of about $450,000 next year and $1.8 million in the 2021-22 year, according to Lianides.
As part of the cuts, the board will be discussing the consolidation of one or possibly two schools. Sudaria will bring a list of proposed overall savings to the board's next meeting on Oct 24.
"We have to be aggressive at this point," Sudaria said.