SAN DIEGO — In a recent speech to his teachers, Alan Bersin noted that his first year as school superintendent has been a time of great debate, anxiety and stress within California's second-largest school district.
Has it ever.
More than any other year in memory--including 1996, when teachers staged a successful six-day strike--this has been one of prolonged public disagreement and discord between teachers and the administration.
"I've seen [superintendents] come and go," said Elaine Law, a 32-year veteran of San Diego schools and now principal of a predominantly minority elementary school. "But I've never seen an E-ticket ride like this."
A year ago, the school board voted 3 to 2 to do what only a handful of big-city districts have been brave or foolish enough to do: hire someone from outside the world of education to make fast and sweeping changes.
The move was born of frustration that despite two decades of innovation and new programs, the San Diego district has largely failed to boost the achievement level of low-income, predominantly minority students.
The board majority concluded that the system of decentralized authority, shared governance and decision by committee that is common in many school districts had failed and that it was time for the educational equivalent of tough love.
The same majority also wanted someone unafraid to confront the teachers union over its ability to influence curriculum and insulate its members from change.
Bersin, 52, a former Los Angeles civil litigator turned U.S. attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties, was fresh from the disappointment of not getting the No. 2 job under Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and was looking for a new career challenge.
With promises of greater accountability from teachers and higher test scores from students--not in five years but within a testing cycle or two--Bersin breezed past a dozen or more pedigreed educators who wanted to succeed the retiring Bertha Pendleton.
Pendleton's forte was consensus building. Bersin's is action.
A Scenario Common in Business World
The first year of his tenure has followed a scenario that is well known in the corporate world but seems revolutionary in a school district:
A hard-charging chief executive hits the ground running and lets everyone know there's a new boss and a new sense of urgency. He promotes "his" people to top jobs. He downsizes by firing or demoting people.
He installs a new system for doing things and announces that there will be further changes to increase productivity, accountability and responsiveness to customers. Employees sink into resentment, but the boss remains bullish.
"There is a strong foundation here," Bersin said in an interview. "But we've got to change. Old attitudes, old allegiances and old antagonisms are not going to produce the results this community wants."
This being a military town, Bersin is ready with military simile: Trying to reform a large bureaucratic system like the San Diego Unified School District (139,000 students, 9,000 employees, $867-million annual budget) is like trying to get a mammoth aircraft carrier to change course.
"The carrier hasn't changed course yet, but it's shimmying," Bersin said.
The teachers union has a different military comparison, likening Bersin to a newly minted officer who has a heady sense of his own authority and no respect for veterans.
"Morale is the lowest I've seen it in my 30 years here," said Marc Knapp, president of the San Diego teachers union. "It's a very oppressive atmosphere for employees in the district--a feeling of tyranny. It's Bersin's way or no way."
Bersin has heard it all before. He has made a kind of mini-career out of bringing swift and unsettling change to San Diego institutions.
He was appointed U.S. attorney in 1993 despite having no experience as a prosecutor. He is a friend of President Clinton from their days as Rhodes scholars, and he knows Hillary Rodham Clinton from their days at Yale Law School.
When he became U.S. attorney, Bersin immediately shuffled personnel. Some curse his name still. Some praise him for bringing a renewed sense of purpose to the office.
He was willing to defy the sense of "that's not how we do it in San Diego" by indicting and successfully prosecuting three former San Diego judges for taking gifts from a lawyer. The district attorney had declined to prosecute.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and educated at Harvard with a bachelor's degree in government, Bersin has shown a preference for importing New Yorkers to ride herd on the San Diegans in his employ.
As U.S. attorney, he brought in career prosecutor Charles LaBella. And as superintendent, he hired Anthony Alvarado, who earned acclaim for raising achievement levels in a 24,000-student slice of the New York system.
When Bersin, Alvarado and other top aides visit a school, teachers quickly pass the word that "the white men in dark suits" are on campus.
Frequent, Forceful Presence in Media