The Tacoma School Board forged ahead Thursday night with a plan to name Deputy Superintendent Carla Santorno to two successive temporary posts that could put her in position to become Tacoma’s next school superintendent.
The board voted 4-1 – with board member Debbie Winskill dissenting – to name Santorno first as superintendent-elect (interim), beginning in January. After serving six months in that position, Santorno would become interim superintendent from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013.
The plan would include a board evaluation and community forums to collect public feedback in January 2013, after Santorno serves in her new leadership roles for a year.
Then, the board will decide to either extend her contract or conduct a national search.
Board President Kurt Miller, who developed the plan, said it will give the board a chance to evaluate Santorno over a period of 12 months, instead of the few hours they might be able to observe outside candidates.
Current Superintendent Art Jarvis announced over the summer his plan to retire at the end of June 2012. Under the plan adopted Thursday, Jarvis would act as the school district’s advocate in Olympia early next year.
Board members who favored the plan said they believe Jarvis’ many years of experience and financial expertise will serve Tacoma well in the upcoming legislative session, where education funding will once again be on the chopping block.
The vote followed a frank board discussion, in which those in favor of the move spoke of the urgency of moving forward in the wake of more financial headaches for the district ahead. Miller also said Santorno would provide continuity for the district, which has endured a tumultuous year of budget cuts, school closures, school reform efforts and an eight-day teacher strike that ended Sept. 23.
“We cannot afford to wait on this decision,” Miller said.
But Winskill said she believes two new board members, who will be chosen by voters in November and who will take their seats in December, need to have a say in how the district proceeds.
Board members Jim Dugan and Kim Golding will end their terms in November.
“The superintendent is the only employee we hire,” she said. She said that if board members want to hire Santorno, they should wait until new members are seated and then work to persuade them to hire her.
“I would like them to be part of crafting a plan (on how operations would work) if Carla is chosen,” she said. “And I think she would be.”
Winskill also said she has concerns about having Jarvis tied up in Olympia, while the district will need to be working on next year’s budget.
“That’s his specialty,” she said.
But the rest of the board said there were reasons to act now.
Catherine Ushka-Hall said she believes Tacoma, as one of the state’s largest school districts, would benefit from having a strong voice in Olympia. She said Santorno has been involved in the district’s strategic objectives, and that she has been named to help run a joint district-union committee designed to resolve a major issue in the teacher strike: teacher transfer policy.
She said Santorno has the needed background on those and other issues, and could help the district move forward “without creating more disruptive change that will prevent us from making progress.”
Dugan said incoming board members will be busy learning their new roles, and that imposing a big task such as a superintendent search on them would be burdensome. He also pointed out that a national search would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – money the district can’t afford in the face of big budget cuts.
He praised Santorno: “I can think of no reason, no evidence of any kind, that we could be better served by anyone else.”
Golding saw no reason to delay.
“People want to see results,” she said. She said Santorno has worked in the past to reach board goals.
Santorno thanked the board for their confidence in her. She said she knows it was a difficult decision, and she’s aware that there was “pushback” from the community. She said the public comments opposing the plan “has given me pause, and helped me look at this opportunity more closely.”
Santorno wants to listen to concerns from both the community and from district teachers, who she promised to support.
“I feel optimistic,” she said.
Jarvis said he will retain the title of superintendent for the remainder of his time in Tacoma. But he said he can delegate tasks to Santorno. He said the plan will “allow us to move strongly into an official transition.”
Miller’s proposal, announced last week by the school district, had drawn criticism from several circles, including the teachers union. But union president Andy Coons vowed to work with Santorno.
“I’m disappointed in the process,” he said, adding that he wished the school board would have gathered more input from the community and from employees before proceeding.
But he said now that the decision has been made, he plans to work with Santorno.
The board agreed to have Miller and Ushka-Hall meet with Santorno to negotiate a new contract. Her current salary, not including benefits, is $184,009. Jarvis currently earns $240,000 in salary, excluding benefits.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635