Teachers, parents and local officials said they were “left with more questions than answers” after a special board meeting held Wednesday evening to discuss the appointment of a new Sequoia Union High School District superintendent.
The meeting came a month after the announcement that former Superintendent Darnise Williams would depart from the district at the end of the year. Members of the public challenged the board’s assertion that the decision was a “mutual agreement,” alleging that the trustees had forced out the district’s first Black female superintendent.
Though the process for finding a new superintendent remains undetermined, the board decided to move forward with a “listening tour” led by executive search firm Leadership Associates to seek input from community members.
Several district teachers and parents spoke during Wednesday’s meeting, demanding more transparency and raising concerns about the board’s commitment to the district in the wake of Williams’ departure. Menlo-Atherton English teacher Abbie Korman asked how the board planned to incentivize community members to share feedback.
“And how will you make sure the community feels like their voice actually matters, when the superintendent we last picked was just let go?” she asked.
The board invited Leadership Associates to discuss the first steps for finding a new superintendent. Eric Andrew, a partner at the firm who led the search for the SUHSD’s last superintendent, Williams, and two previous assistant superintendents, addressed the board during the meeting.
As part of the process, he recommended leading a “listening tour” to gather input on what the community wants in their next superintendent and any particular needs or challenges facing the district. He encouraged the board to analyze the results of this outreach to inform a decision about what kind of recruitment process to conduct.
However, some speakers questioned the value and success of another round of community outreach, noting that the last superintendent search concluded just two years ago with the hiring of Williams.
Korman said she was “confused by the mission of a listening tour,” adding that “any unmet need” for the district should have been raised and discussed before Williams’ departure.
“I’m not sure, on a listening campaign, what will have changed since the last time you asked folks, except maybe an erosion of trust in the board,” she said.
Korman also asked about the expected timeline, whether a new superintendent would be appointed by the end of the school year and if data from the community input would be made public.
“I’m left with more questions than answers,” she said.
Bruised and broken relationships
Jenny Varghese Bloom, a parent and Ravenswood City School District governing board member, echoed Korman’s message. She asked why the board was having another listening tour if the district's priorities—transparency, equity and diversity—hadn’t changed. And why should the district trust the board to act in the best interest of its stakeholders?
“Will you as a team actually listen to your whole community? Or will you actually make your own political goals and desires and choose what you want?” Varghese Bloom said.
Addressing the public concerns, Board Vice President Shawneece Stevenson said that transparency, trust and communication “have really been difficult” over the past 18 months. She wondered how the board, which had “bruised if not broken some relationships,” could conduct the outreach and search process in a way that would rebuild trust with the community.
Stevenson and Trustee Amy Koo both spoke in favor of having anti-bias training for the trustees to reduce their “blind spots” while searching for a new superintendent. Board President Rich Ginn said he also supported a board training, though no formal plans had yet been discussed.
Ginn told the Pulse he was “concerned” that people felt a loss of trust in the board, adding that he and his fellow trustees had “gotten grief” for not disclosing information that was privileged by closed sessions.
Still, he said that seeking community outreach was the right way to move forward—and that the board would consider all input.
“Just because we didn’t do what any one person said doesn’t mean we didn’t take their feedback into account,” he said.
The board will hold a special meeting, open to the public, on Feb. 8 at 5 p.m. to provide input on the forthcoming community outreach process. Andrew and his team at Leadership Associates will then move forward with the listening tour, the results of which will be shared during the March 8 regular board meeting.
The board has not committed to anything beyond the listening tour, according to Ginn, who said next steps will be determined based on the feedback from the community and recommendations from Leadership Associates. Options for finding a replacement superintendent range from appointing Crystal Leach, who is currently serving as interim superintendent, to conducting a full, national search.
Leach, who was previously serving as associate superintendent, stepped in as interim superintendent after Williams’ departure in December. Her contract, which was approved by the board Wednesday, was backdated to Jan. 1, 2023 and extends until the day before the next superintendent begins. Leach will receive a salary of $268,248.39 and a $6,000 stipend per fiscal month.
No specifics around timeline or payment for contractual services with Leadership Associates or any other search firms have been discussed, though Ginn said he “would expect a sort of standard pricing.”
In 2020, the district awarded a contract of $26,000 to Leadership Associates for services to find a new superintendent.
Since its founding in 1996, Leadership Associates has worked with school districts throughout California, according to the Sequoia district. The firm has completed more than 550 executive searches, primarily superintendent searches for school boards.