COSTA MESA — It is not the usual school superintendent who drives a Harley-Davidson onto the floor of a gymnasium during a high school pep rally. Nor do many get to clean up after a $4-million embezzlement and heavy losses in a county bankruptcy.
So Newport-Mesa Unified School District would be hard-pressed to find a clone of Mac Bernd, who this month resigned after four years as superintendent to take over the 54,000-student Arlington, Texas, school system.
The school board of the 20,000-student Newport-Mesa district is planning a nationwide search. With education politics becoming ever more volatile, executive search experts say school boards face increasing turnover rates for their top staff post. This year, new superintendents have been installed in Laguna Beach, Westminster, Irvine and the multi-city Fullerton high school district.
Bernd, 54, a motorcycle aficionado who once headed Chelsea Clinton's school system in Little Rock, Ark., was hired by Newport-Mesa Unified on a tenuous 4-3 school board vote in June 1993. Bernd spoke with The Times before he left.
Question: The 1992 Newport-Mesa embezzlement scandal was one of the largest in California history. How did you deal with it?
Answer: There were two aspects to it. One was the loss of the money, and the other was the loss of trust in the system. The best number that people came up with was a loss in the $4-million range, though I don't know if anyone will ever know completely. And we made that up. The more serious thing was the loss of trust. The embezzlement has had an effect that will be present for decades. I don't know of anybody who was directly involved in that who will ever be able to completely trust the system again.
Q: What did you do to restore public confidence?
A: In the first year, I made 144 community appearances. I counted them up. I just tried to open myself and the system up completely so people could probe as pointedly and deeply as they wanted. Our constituents are highly vocal, highly intelligent and absolutely unafraid to ask hard questions. That's what needed to happen.
Q: How much do people trust the district now?
A: A lot more than they did.
Q: What management changes did you make?
A: The financial problems were [already] on the way to being solved. We also made some significant reductions in central office staff. In the first two years I was there, we had a complete changeover in high school principals. By now, we probably have new leadership in two-thirds of the schools.
Q: The district was hit hard by the 1994 county bankruptcy, losing millions of dollars it is still seeking to recover.
A: It's like you're a fighter, and you have a tough first round, but you kind of hold your own. Then you get into the second round and, all of a sudden, a couple punches come from someplace you didn't expect at all. It caused a huge delay. It's just not realistic to talk to people about instructional improvement when they're not sure they're going to get a paycheck.
Q: What is the level of financial reserves now in the district?
A: We're above 3%, the state minimum. Financially, we're in good shape.
Q: How do you measure school improvement?
A: The most important measure is student academic achievement. When I came to the district, we did not have standardized testing in all our schools. There was no way of knowing how we were doing in comparison to the nation or the state.
Q: In your third year, you began testing in grades two through 10. How did people react?
A: When the community finally saw the scores, there were concerns. Frankly, I wanted the scores to be public. Although we may have professed the fact that we were doing a good job in the classroom, I don't think it's fair to say that unless you have hard evidence to back it up. And we didn't have it. In '95-96 a lot of people were shocked at the scores. Some of our schools were quite low. So we really focused on basic skills then, and in 1996-97 our test scores increased in every grade level districtwide. That's pretty significant. Frankly, there were many people in the system who were not supportive of even doing it.
Q: Of testing?
A: Well, you've got this whole debate about what kind of testing we should do--performance testing versus filling out the bubbles. There were certainly teachers in the system who didn't agree that we should be doing multiple-choice tests. But they worked very hard after they saw the scores.
Q: Do you think standardized testing motivated the teachers?
A: I really do. In complex organizations, what gets measured, gets done.
Q: You were hired here at $104,000 a year. What was your ending salary here and what will you earn in Texas?
A: Here, $115,000, and $142,000 in Arlington. Here I had a car allowance of $500 a month and an expense account of $300 a month. There I've got a $700 [monthly] car allowance and $300 expense account.
Q: What does the public get for its money?
A: They get one thousand percent, full commitment, 24 hours a day.