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Douglas superintendent finalists endure final test

GARDNERVILLE, Nev. – The first two superintendent candidates interviewed more than a month ago were back Monday as the two finalists for the highest job in the Douglas County School District.

Mary Bull, former superintendent of Vallejo City Unified School District, and Dave Jensen, assistant superintendent of Humboldt County School District, each had three-hour interviews with a roundtable composed of 20 school board members, administrators, teachers and classified staff.

This time around, Bull was put in the hot seat first, facing 15 questions asked by various employees over the three-hour period with only one break and a roughly half-hour mock administrative coaching session with Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School principal Keith Lewis.

Michele Baugh, a secretary in the district office, said new superintendents are often asked by individuals or special interest groups to change an existing practice or policy. She asked Bull how she would handle such pressure.

“Initially,” Bull said, “I would not take action on anything like that.”

Rather, she said, she’d immerse herself in the district and learn the ropes, then take a harder look at the issues.

“It may or may not be worthy of coming to the surface,” she said. “If there were wide-spread dissatisfaction about it, I would like to discuss it more. What’s it about? Is it some kind of superfluous, highly self-interested thing? What’s the motivation behind it? I wouldn’t want to go off on tangents.”

Zephyr Cove Elementary School teacher Brenda Chapman asked Bull how she felt about using student achievement data in teacher evaluations.

Bull said it’s fair to use student achievement as part of an evaluation, emphasizing the word “part.”

“It’s a very complex issue,” she said. “Teachers don’t pick their kids for the most part.”

Bull said student achievement would need to focus on growth that’s occurred in the classroom. In that case, she said, the measure would need to be phased into evaluations depending on agreements with teachers and administrators.

“It can’t be a gotcha,” she said. “It has to be used for reasonable feedback and support.”

Pinon Hills Principal Rommy Cronin asked Bull how she supports principals whose schools are struggling to make adequate yearly progress, as mandated by No Child Left Behind.

“I would encourage them to keep up the good fight,” Bull said. “I would continue to provide professional development for teachers and principals in need. Supporting and validating and encouraging and so on. But if there are incompetent people in that situation, then I’d move quickly to replace or shore up them up in some way.”

Bull said the key to raising performance is aligning curriculum in the classroom, developing early intervention strategies and also getting parents involved in their students’ success.

During public comment, Carson Valley Middle School teacher Nicolle Larson read to board members an excerpt from a June 13, 2009, Vallejo Times-Herald article that describes a racial discrimination lawsuit filed against Bull by a former assistant. The same article states that Bull was the subject of at least four employee-mistreatment claims since September 2007.

According to the Vallejo Times-Herald, Bull was placed on paid leave in June as the school board investigated another employee complaint against her, this time made by the school district’s spokesperson Jason Hodge.

In August, Bull was terminated without cause in a 4-1 vote and paid out the remainder of her contract, though no details of the investigation were made public. Hodge was subsequently reinstated.

“I understand that people in highly public positions are susceptible to lawsuits,” Larson said. “However, that would be understood for one or even two lawsuits. My concern here is we are talking about three or more. There seems to be a pattern here.”

When asked about matter, Bull said two board members in Vallejo, including one who voted for her termination, already have stated that the measure was political in nature and had nothing to do with any character flaw.

“That’s what I’m going to stand on,” Bull told The Record Courier. “I’m trying to get past it. I think it’s been answered to the board members’ satisfaction. I want to be forthcoming without disparaging anyone.”

Bull said the dramatic scenery and outdoor opportunities of Douglas County drew her to the area.

“It’s important for me to live in a place where outside you can see pretty things,” she said. “It’s motivating, it’s uplifting.”

Bull said one area in the school district where she’d like to see improvement is making people more aware of achievement gaps between subpopulations.

“I want to emphasize that the district is doing very well,” she said. “There are opportunities for improvement.”

Bull also emphasized her record of educational experience ranging from the classroom to site administration to her stint as superintendent.

“I love the work,” she said.

A few hours after lunch, Jensen was called into the roundtable for the next marathon interview. The same staff members returned to ask the same questions.

Baugh asked Jensen how he would handle interested groups advocating change.

“I would take the time to get to know the district,” Jensen said. “I would meet with as many staff members as I could over the course of a few months. It’s imperative the superintendent knows what’s been implemented in the district and what’s working. I’m not rushing to make any significant changes.”

Jensen said he’d only move forward to change policy at the direction of the board.

“I’d take the time necessary to get familiar with each subject and get a feel if change is necessary or something that doesn’t have the need or support,” he said.

When Chapman asked Jensen about using student achievement data in teacher evaluations, Jensen said he supports the idea.

“I don’t believe there’s another profession where people are not held accountable for what the outcome is,” he said. “Teachers, all the way up to administrators and the superintendent, need to be held accountable for growth and student achievement.”

Jensen said student achievement would not be the sole determinant in evaluations, likely accounting for 50 percent or less. He said districts will need to work with teacher unions to determine how best student achievement can be utilized in the evaluation process.

Cronin asked Jensen the same question regarding school principals struggling to make adequate yearly progress.

In response, Jensen gave the example of a Winnemucca school struggling with literacy. When newly trained teachers targeted literacy, scores went up, Jensen said. Unfortunately, math scores then declined. He said hiring a math specialist turned things around, though he learned a valuable lesson in the process.

“Focus on what’s necessary and use data,” Jensen said. “But don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

After the interview, Jensen told The Record Courier that the good reputation of the Douglas County School District attracted him to the job.

“It’s well-known and you can’t question the fact that the educational experience and background here is top-notch,” he said. “But there is room for improvement. It’s a good district, but it could be better.”

Jensen said academic performance has been stagnant the last 3-5 years. One problem the district faces, he said, is complacency.

“I mean it with all respect, but when you’re very good, it becomes easy to know you’re good and that you don’t have to change,” he said.

School board members will discuss final selection of the superintendent 5 p.m. Monday at Douglas High School.


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