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Two Will Share Honors as Top Superintendent in the State

The administrators--from the adjoining Saddleback and Capistrano districts--are known for friendly competitiveness and a 'passion for education.'

November 19, 2000|MATTHEW EBNET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unable to decide which school official they should pick for their most prestigious professional award, delegates from 20 state regions of the Assn. of California School Administrators last week did something they've never done in 29 years of voting: They gave it to two people.

Peter Hartman, superintendent of the Saddleback Unified School District, and James Fleming, superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District, were tied in the voting, and on Wednesday both were selected as California Superintendent of the Year. And even though rules allow for only one candidate, the association will flout the conventions and submit both men's names in a national competition to decide the country's best superintendent.

"The thinking was this: It just wouldn't have been fair to have to pick just one candidate," said Bob Wells, executive director of the association. "We'd be selling the other one short. So why not pick both? Seems like a reasonable solution to a deadlocked election to me."

The candidates have an unusual amount in common. The two manage adjoining school districts that share some of the same communities. Both have stood watch as their districts have undergone drastic and similar demographic changes in the last decade. And often, even when they aren't having dinner together, they eat at the same restaurants.

Sometimes they even steal teachers and administrators from each other. Barbara Smith worked for a decade as a principal under Hartman, but left to work for Fleming, eventually as his second in command.

"I have the best of both worlds. I have two of the best mentors around, if anything because the two have this friendly competition going, and . . . maybe they were trying to see who was the better mentor," said Smith, now superintendent for the San Rafael City School District in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"I'm really not surprised both of them got the award. I think they are better off from having the other around. They both have a passion for education that goes beyond the borders of their district."

The two talk at least five times a week, have dinner every two, and carpool when they go on school-related trips.

In some ways, the two districts are like one, managed by two, colleagues say. Often the superintendents are spotted on the phone, bouncing ideas off each other, or comparing the latest test scores.

Fleming, known for his communication skills, manages a district of 44 schools, and Hartman, known as a financial whiz, manages a district of 37. All told, the two oversee about 80,000 students.

"There really is a good competitiveness between us," Fleming, 57, said. "He'll call me up and say, 'Hey, look at our SAT scores,' and I have to say 'Ah, I guess we'll get you on the Stanford 9s.' He definitely helps me be a better [superintendent]."

Hartman, 63, agrees. "I think we both have a lot of experiences to [share]. He worked in Florida. I worked in New Jersey. Together we have a lot to talk about. We are both aggressive, too, but we benefit from that."

The two will officially accept the award together Dec. 1 in Long Beach at a superintendents association lunch.

Wells said having co-winners is awkward, but that makes it all the more meaningful. He said one reason the association decided to give the award to two people is that each candidate was willing to let the other take the prize.

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