Probably one of the toughest jobs in Emeryville is being the Emery Unified School District Superintendent. Emeryville schools face a complicated dynamic and history, and there’s no denying that the EUSD faces significant challenges. The Superintendent position has been a revolving door in recent years. NPR recently spotlighted the surprising short shelf life of superintendents in urban cities like ours.
It doesn’t help matters when the focus of an entire opinion blog is criticism directed at you with unparalleled vindictiveness. While most people “consider the source” when reading these rants, there are a few that are naive enough to soak them up as gospel. This gentlemen and the core of the group RULE that he is a part of seem more focused on their own self-righteous principles than moving the district forward and seizing any momentum.
Dr. John Rubio was hired in 2014 amid the sudden retirement of former Superintendent Debra Lindo to help steer the district in a new direction. Last year, the city opened the Emeryville Center of Community Life (ECCL), a joint partnership with the city that houses grades K-12 as well as community services. There’s hope that with a new facility and the resources needed to sustain it, that the district is ready to take a big step forward.
As the parent of a one year old who is starting to consider his educational path, I find it my responsibility to better understand the challenges of our district, hear from parents about their concerns and hold stakeholders accountable. My hopes are this is the beginning in a series of correspondences with EUSD personnel that will help facilitate community engagement and track results.
We conducted an email interview with Dr. Rubio to hopefully sort out fact from fiction, and understand the path forward for the EUSD and the ECCL.
INTERVIEW: EUSD Superintendent Dr. John Rubio
EE: It seems like there is a lot of accusations floating out there about you and the district lately. Can you give us some background and your perspective?
Well, a good amount of it seems to have become personal.
There are a few community members who are always looking for some smoking gun – they attempt to blow up and exaggerate facts, like the current state of our new facility or issues within our school district.
But, to be honest, I also know I have done a lot of unpopular things; I stopped a lot of extra hours and money for staff through extra stipends that seemed questionable; I stopped or interrupted the hiring of friends or relatives solely based on the relationship versus skills level or talent; removed extra days of pay for some staff who worked out personal agreements years ago; and completely removed some staff who were either low quality in their work or sitting on cruise control. None of that is easy, and none of this is helping my popularity of course. Increasing our accountability and expectations has hurt some staff in the pocket if not cost their jobs.
When I arrived to Emeryville in 2014, the district was significantly overspending beyond revenues, and there were a few tenured or soon to be tenured teachers and staff who were not the kind of people most parents would want around their children.
I was able to work collaboratively with most of the school board and also with the teacher’s union on these issues – some staff were moved out of their positions, I forced a few resignations, laid off 5 classified members in May of 2015 (with the full support of councilmember Christian Patz while on the board, although he later reversed his position to save face with the public) and formally dismissed at least one staff member.
I don’t share this, or do these things, because I enjoy it and feel any pride. I do it because I think public school districts often lack integrity and accountability, so I completely understand why some teachers might feel a little anxious.
We do sometimes help some members of staff to consider other career options.
Still, I listened carefully to some of these teachers recently at a board meeting, and I understood their feelings.
I have a mandate as a superintendent not any different from when I was a school principal in San Francisco – and that’s to find the best teachers, staff and school principals for our children. That has not always been the history here in Emeryville or in many public school districts. Creating that kind of change is very difficult and makes my job a lot harder, but I think it’s what leadership really requires and that it’s the right thing to do for the kids and for our parents.
Whenever we have changes in staff, we look to hire the best people possible, and I am very happy that we have both a new elementary principal and a new middle school principal coming in this month to continue to improve our district. We also still have a rock star high school principal that I worked very hard to get here.
But I think all the talk about change, talk about bringing in new people, and what I have done, worries some teachers, or makes them feel like things are unsafe or maybe that they are not as valued as new staff coming in. I really need to stay aware of that because we do have many wonderful veteran teachers – that is the norm really – and they work so hard for our students. I need to do a better job of making sure they know how much we need them and value them. We can never pay them what they truly deserve, unless California changes the way they fund schools.
I think I have a close relationship with many of our teachers, including a very positive relationship with the teacher union leadership. That’s not always easy. We definitely don’t always see eye to eye, but we are professional and we collaborate to improve the district and teacher pay when possible. The teacher union leadership and I just finished what is probably the district’s most successful and collaborative negotiation in maybe the last ten years.
Most of the teachers and I had dinner together last fall, having some fun away from work to continue to build and strengthen our relationships while welcoming new staff and celebrating existing staff.
Unfortunately, the staff at Anna Yates has been divided along lines of race this year while they were doing some difficult work around race and equity – that’s going to be an important focus for the new principals since the position of principal really is the person who is responsible for setting the climate of a school site.
EE: What about the local blog run by the Mayor’s brother that seems so determined to vilify you?
JR: Ahh, my friend.
It’s too bad. He sometimes actually has good questions.
I used to spend 1-2 hours at a time sitting with him, but it wasn’t too long before I learned that he used “alternative facts” and stretches the truth whenever it serves his position.
He claimed teachers recently said I was incompetent when in fact they were talking to both me and the board about “cultural competence” regarding issues of race and equity. So he took the word “competence” to mislead his readers as it served his purpose better. A couple of weeks ago he said that I said “I believed students were lying” in reference to some recent student allegations– I never spoke to him or said that to anyone.
The saddest thing is that I think some people actually believe what he writes.
I can’t do much about that. Hopefully most people know his MO by now. A few weeks ago, he yelled over the phone at a young female clerk in our office to “stop telling parents they sound rude” after she asked him why he was speaking rudely to her, and that she should tell me to “stop interfering” and to “leave his school board alone.” I’ve observed the same type of bullying behavior by him in our local government and community.
EE: You also have one former board trustee, current councilmember Christian Patz, who often seems antagonistic toward you and goes on the offensive. What do you think the issue is with him?
JR: To be honest, I think it’s a “mindset” issue.
I don’t know if any one of them know the work of Carol Dweck out of Stanford around Mindset, but it really comes down to people who only want to focus on the negative.
We have made many improvements over the years, but they scoff every time they hear of our stronger programs, our expanded science offering for children like our absolutely wonderful Scientific Adventure for Girls program and Kala Art programs that I have happily welcomed and expanded, and even the better numbers from year to year of fewer teachers turning over in the district.
That kind of news doesn’t feed their negative mindset, so they don’t want to hear about any of that – It doesn’t really serve their purpose.
Our school district has improved in many ways every year I have been here. Now, mind you, we have hardly arrived and there is a lot more we need to do to improve, but we know what we need to do and we are in a much better position than when I arrived due to the things I have done with my team and with the majority of the school board.
But you know, it also doesn’t matter if it’s me or whomever is the next superintendent one day. Emeryville will always have the same people desperately seeking negative information, and criticizing those in leadership. It’s as constant as death and taxes.
The hard part is it easily becomes very personal and very unprofessional, but people typically have a lot of excuses about how “passionate” they are for the kids or the topic being discussed.
I think constantly attacking others makes some feel important and empowered, and they are definitely seeking power and attention.
Unfortunately, their behavior ends up wasting a lot of our time and costing us legal bills, while simultaneously keeping the board and I completely distracted from the important work of student achievement. To be honest, I am really tired of all the focus on the building. I feel like it’s time to move on.
Of course, we will, and I will, also make some mistakes. We are a very small district with a bare bones staff of eight or nine where there used to be about 14 staff. You can throw lots of darts at us and very easily find things that we might not being doing or doing correctly. People often assume that’s about leadership or how we function when in reality it’s about holding up a school district with a very small staff. We have to turn in the same comprehensive and often large reports as Oakland and Berkeley, and they have full departments of staff working on the same reports. The problem of course is that there are people who love to find, point out, and capitalize on the mistakes of others.
It’s kind of sad to me. Imagine what happens when a teacher or parent constantly points out the negative, constantly looks for what’s wrong or only looks at performance instead of growth, and never really wants to help a person (or school) improve.
If a community member sincerely wanted to be helpful, they would contact me directly and say “Hey, I think you might have a problem in this area” and they would offer to help or ask for what we would do to fix the item. They would not be standing up at public meetings to grandstand or emailing large groups trying to look right while making others look wrong. That’s a very unhelpful and self-serving approach.
Ironically, the people standing up and wasting most of this time aren’t even parents of our students, and I think if they really cared about our kids, then they would allow us, if not insist, that we should be focusing on student achievement and not the ECCL building anymore.
EE: What is next for the school district and why are some people calling for an audit of the ECCL construction process or bond money?
JR: There are a number of individuals who have always been against the project and who lost that battle.
Now, they are on a political fishing expedition, and one that will cost money, looking for any bad news they can find.
The bad news for them is that we haven’t seen any evidence of wrong doing or malfeasance, so at this point it’s really all a conspiracy theory.
There really aren’t any critical or large issues regarding ECCL, though there is an effort to make some small issues sound really large.
We have a beautiful facility that needs a few small things that we are working on to improve or correct. I supervised the construction management company, Swinerton, who in turn watched Turner like a hawk, and things went well overall. Both companies responded to my requests and demand for corrections when needed. I would love for someone to show me a construction project that didn’t have any issues.
I would add that we also have had a Citizen’s Oversight Committee that thoroughly looked at every penny, every expense. I sat in on these meetings and saw a great group of citizens who made sure the district was abiding by the language in Measure J which funded ECCL. Even one usually disgruntled member of the committee always received every financial report she wanted (and help in reading them).
So will there be another audit of the project? I don’t know. It’s up to the school board to decide if they want to pursue the requests. It’s not up to me, though it seems like a waste of money and waste of my time with the real purpose to see if anyone can find any dirt
EE: Do you regret coming to Emeryville as superintendent?
JR: Hah, now that’s a good question. No, I don’t.
Being a leader is tough work if you’re going to really improve a public entity that’s been sitting comfortably for a long time.
I was able to work collaboratively with some of the city staff to change the ECCL plans to bring the old plans up to date, get the latest technology for the classrooms, raise the campaign money and help convince our voters to extend our parcel tax for twenty years, research to find our kids the safest turf field in the Bay Area, and move us into ECCL with a shoestring staff, all while I put us in possibly our strongest financial position in years – the latter allowing me to give our teachers a small but significant raise for the upcoming school year.
If you had a bar graph that compared the quality of our staff to what we had in 2013-2014, it would show a dramatic difference in the caliber of most of our staff now compared to before my arrival.
I may also be the first superintendent we think in twenty years to get a contract extension, so I’m the first willing to go into a 4th year in twenty years. Emeryville has a long history of turnover, so I believe we remain on the right track, regardless of the opinions of the small vocal minority of outgoing staff, or of the community members who don’t have any children actually attending our schools.
We have many great teachers and all of the staff we have now work very hard.
I feel proud talking about them. I feel very confident that all of our current staff work very hard and do their best.
Our teachers and our students don’t deserve the constant distractions that are thrown toward the school board and me. It just hurts the kids.
EE: As a parent of a one year old, I chat with a lot of other parents that are unsure if they’ll send their kids to school in the EUSD when they’re of age because of its historic performance record. Give us some cause for optimism that the EUSD will continue to progress and improve.
JR: All public schools struggle with challenges around race, class and academic performance.
However, we have a diverse group of parents and students of many different economic and racial backgrounds.
While that brings some challenges, that’s also a real strength of our district – It builds everyone’s knowledge and experience.
We also have to be able to guarantee a great teacher in every classroom. That’s harder of course in California where teachers receive tenure after two quick years where school administrators are already so overwhelmed that they can barely pull off observing them.
So in my mind, having a great teacher, and great programs, is what parents need to be assured of, as well as that there will be additional support for students who need it.
Our goal is to ensure a great teacher in each classroom, and strong academic programs, so that every child can thrive and succeed.
EE: You’ve been in ECCL now and year one is over. What’s next for the district?
JR: Our teachers, parents, community members and board and I drafted a new vision in 2015.
Part of that vision includes focusing on ongoing effort and improvement, not just performance, and that when we make mistakes, it’s a great opportunity for us to learn.
And, one of our main goals is that all kids will be given equitable access to a great education, programs and empowerment. That can only happen with the great support we continue to see from Rich Robbins and Wareham, who is really a model for what all businesses should do for their local schools, and with a great teacher in every classroom.
It’s with Rich’s help and partnership that I have been able to expand our Science programs and Art program, and attract Math and Science applicants.
We also just finished interviewing 198 people since late February for just a handful of positions, and we paper screened over 250 into the round file.
So what’s next is that we will continue in the direction of seeking and attracting the best teachers we can find, and that’s not easy, and we will continue to expand and increase our academic programs and rigor for our kids. That’s our clear direction – along with improving the level of collaboration among the students and also the adults. That would be a good direction for some of our community members.
We have a few more families from Pixar who asked about enrolling this year, and we will continue to work to keep a diverse group of families and students from all backgrounds enrolled in our schools.
Our high school keeps improving each year also, and it’s become a small and safe school for some really great high school kids. I have not done a good job of getting to know our high school kids, so I will also be working to improve that this year.
I give up most of my life for this little district, and I will keep doing my best to improve when I make mistakes and support my staff when they make mistakes.
It’s a tough curriculum, and there is plenty of learning to go around, but that’s how we really grow.
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