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TMCNet:  What went wrong with Santa Clara County's $300,000 school leader [San Jose Mercury News :: ]

[April 05, 2014]

What went wrong with Santa Clara County's $300,000 school leader [San Jose Mercury News :: ]

(San Jose Mercury News (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 05--SAN JOSE -- After bouncing out its third superintendent in seven years, the Santa Clara County Office of Education is now seeking to chart a new course and refocus on its work serving the county's 400 public schools.


And while the departure of Xavier De La Torre, after only 21 months as Santa Clara County's top educator, comes as a relief to many, the office's new leaders will have to grapple with his legacy, as some services eroded or disappeared entirely, leaving schools searching elsewhere for technical and budget help.

Righting the ship is critical. Among other things, the office submits payroll taxes for most of the county's 32 school districts, provides Internet services and, under California's new school finance regimen, will oversee how districts spend their money and whether they're serving their most needy students.

What went so wrong with the former County Office of Education superintendent, who was hired in 2012 with much fanfare as a "game-changer" and "cultural match" for Santa Clara County? Interviews with two dozen current and former employees and those who deal with the County Office of Education, as well as emails, letters, and audit and office documents, paint a picture of a distant administrator who confided in a few trusted appointees but interacted little with other employees -- and was unforgiving of dissent. Employees complained of an atmosphere of fear and secrecy.

By March, relations between De La Torre and the board had so soured that he barely communicated, failing to even settle on his official departure date until just days before. And his exit comes amid an investigation into mishaps in the office's payroll operations that highlighted a broader critique of his management style.

It was an odd and unforeseen disintegration. De La Torre -- experienced, articulate and at times charming -- came highly recommended as a bridge-builder. It was a skill badly needed at the County Office of Education, whose board had stoked anger among local school officials by approving charter schools.

"I am as baffled as everybody," said trustee Julia Hover-Smoot, a De La Torre supporter who wishes he had stayed, but who fielded numerous complaints about him. "I urged Xavier to be the leader who could make things happen at the office." When he arrived in July 2012, the board gave De La Torre, 50, three marching orders: improve the efficiency of the office, support charter schools and lead the campaign to boost the achievement of poor children.

But those directives launched him almost immediately into hostile waters. He cut staff before understanding functions at the complex County Office of Education, hurting services demanded by districts, appearing to target those he considered disloyal and setting the stage for the payroll debacle.

Despite a background of helping poor children achieve, he failed to use his position to lead efforts to close the achievement gap that separates ethnic groups.

And in a job based on building relationships, De La Torre himself admitted that he could not overcome resentment among school officials, especially on the contentious issue of charter schools.

After a year in office, the board refused to grant him a satisfactory review and an accompanying raise.

Then he failed to tell the board how his own payroll department spiraled into chaos and issued at least dozens of incorrect checks. When months later the board responded to employee complaints and sent an investigator, De La Torre said he didn't know anything about the debacle and walked out after five minutes.

Even before then, De La Torre was applying for jobs in Texas. By December, he was cleaning out his office. He took over at Ysleta Independent School District on March 24.

The superintendent "didn't do what we expected," said trustee Joseph Di Salvo, who was president when the board hired De La Torre away from El Paso's Socorro Independent School District. Earning nearly $300,000 annually, he was one of the highest-paid educators in the state. "I feel badly for him that this happened." De La Torre himself said that three months into the job, he questioned his decision to leave Texas and a nationally recognized district. Instead of overseeing students, teachers and principals, he was listening to administrators. As he chaired monthly meetings of 32 district superintendents, "I felt like I really wasn't part of that. They had far more in common with each other than I had with any of them," he said.

Indeed, running a county office is far different from operating a school district. The County Office of Education provides training, business, technology and payroll services to school districts, and runs classrooms for Head Start, environmental education, special education and students expelled from other schools. De La Torre's previous experience was in district administration, overseeing schools, pushing a school-bond measure and charting out learning plans.

And his roots as an administrator in Texas and California's Central Valley, he said, made him sympathetic to the superintendents who were at odds with his bosses.

While he said he supported some charter schools, "probably there were more times when I was conflicted," he said, as his staff reviewed charter applications and recommended approval or denial. "You find yourself trying to be supportive and helpful to your county board, and on the other hand trying to honor your integrity" and professional expertise.

His critics didn't see that struggle. "He made my life miserable for most of the year," said Steve Trujillo, 61, a special-education teacher who said he was harassed into retiring after asking De La Torre a barrage of questions about collective bargaining and merit pay.

De La Torre said the allegation surprised him. "I thought we had a terrific conversation." Most current and former employees interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used because they feared retribution from De La Torre or his top appointees.

They believe he targeted the technology branch because its director stood up for employees, and they cite a technology manager who spoke out on behalf of others at a meeting about layoffs -- then later found his job eliminated. "The superintendent got angry at the messenger," said Burt Lo, the manager who was laid off last year.

The county schools superintendent also has a bully pulpit De La Torre never effectively used, observers say. In his 21 months on the job, his office receded from its high profile. "We don't have a lot of interaction with the superintendent," said Jeff Janssen, whose boss, Mayor Chuck Reed, used to regularly discuss initiatives with Charles Weis, De La Torre's predecessor.

His efforts to streamline the office also came under fire. Managers complained that lengthy reviews of contracts and purchase orders have gummed up operations, cost the office contracts and discounts, and enraged employees.

De La Torre said that in tightening credit-card policies, purchasing and contracting and accountability, it's natural that employees would react to belt-tightening. He previously referred to the "country-club atmosphere" at the County Office of Education.

Not everyone would blame De La Torre's administration for problems. The environment of fear goes back at least 10 years, said one employee who feared being identified.

Nevertheless, the upheaval further eroded the services, institutional knowledge and reputation of the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

Whereas the office once was the go-to place for ready answers to the complex questions about California's education financing rules, one school district official said, "Now we don't call them. We call each other." What employees and school district officials wonder now is where the office is headed. The board named Mary Ann Dewan, who joined the office five months ago as chief schools officer, as interim leader. President Leon Beauchman said he hoped to name a permanent superintendent by July 1, using the same search firm that produced De La Torre.

Observers question the haste and the process.

Rose Filicetti, executive director of the Santa Clara County School Boards Association, said that De La Torre's untimely departure is sad for the county. "I had high hopes," she said, "Frankly, I'm very concerned who they get next." Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.

___ (c)2014 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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