Soon-to-be-former PUSD Superintendent Edwin Diaz sat down with Patch reporter Chris Bertrand just a day after his resignation announcement stunned attendees at a school board candidate forum in Pasadena on Wednesday. Questions were assembled by John Stephens, Sierra Madre Patch editor, and Dan Abendschein of Altadena Patch, along with Bertrand, the education reporter for Sierra Madre Patch.
Relaxed and comfortable in his decision to pursue another direction in his career, Diaz took time to review and analyze the state he will leave the district in come Aug. 2. With a photo of his family facing us over his shoulder at his desk, he took a look at his tenure, progress in the district, challenges past and future and his own personal plans during a Q&A session.
Below are highlights from that interview.
What have been the biggest challenges faced by the district?
Diaz: Budget cuts and bringing together such a diverse population to come to a consensus. The strategic planning process finished recently was key in pulling the district together.
What’s on your wish list for the district for the future?
Diaz: I wish nothing but the best for the district and in particular for the kids. We have kids in PUSD with tremendous needs as well as very talented kids. They both need to be served.
What happens next?
Diaz: We need to be realistic during the transition to a new superintendent and put a solid transition process into place that is professionally managed, then look what’s been accomplished and what hasn’t.
With my August resignation date, the main consideration was to give board a good four or five months to do a good search. If a little more time is needed to implement a smooth transition, I’m willing to extend a little. I met with the board president today, and we have a special meeting on Tuesday to talk about the replacement process for the superintendent.
Did the election or this week’s proposed budget cuts cause your resignation?
Diaz: No on the election. No on the budget cuts.
The timing of my decision was based on conversations with my wife and my older daughters over the winter break. We had more opportunity to talk about what our futures are going to be. It’s been tough finally coming to a decision and doing it soon enough so the board has time to hire a new superintendent.
Regarding the budget cuts, I will still be here to lead the budget cuts process. We are still early in the process. We are reviewing it next week followed by study sessions. I will be here for it.
What are the biggest challenges facing the district in coming years?
Diaz: I have come to appreciate the complexities of this district and the people. One of the biggest challenges will be resources. They’ll continue to be a challenge for the next two to three years
We need to ID the right programs and strategies to help accelerate the performance of some of our students to close the achievement gap.
The district will be challenged to maintain a focused, community-based effort on improving schools. Engaging a whole community, which is needed, takes a lot of time and resources to maintain. You have to take the time to establish the relationships to move forward together. With reduced resources, that becomes even more difficult.
Another challenge will be governance, making sure the board is operating at the policy level. We need common procedures agreed upon. Then allow the superintendent and staff to implement the goals of the board.
What about the district test scores? Are they coming up fast enough?
Diaz: Test scores never rise fast enough. We always want them to increase faster. We’ve had greater gains at the middle schools and high schools, which is really good.
In my perfect vision, they would have gone up more. But to be fair to all of us, they went up at a time when we cut $32 million out of the budget.
What has been most difficult moment in your tenure?
Diaz: There have been quite a few! The last most-difficult moment was adopting this year’s budget in June 2010 to make recommendations that I knew were not in the best interest of kids and their educational interests. We had to cut $25 million, increase class size and eliminate effective programs. It also impacted the lives of a lot of employees. That was tough.
What has been your relationship with the school board?
Diaz: My first three years, we built a strong positive relationship. I think I have a great relationship with a majority of them. When you’re in this business, it’s a blessing to have the majority with you. When you look at my tenure of four years, it has been positive.
What about the candidates up for school board election on March 8?
Diaz: Some candidates have good knowledge and others have limited knowledge. The determining factor will be whether they are willing to work as part of the team as a board member, remain focused on the kids and operate in the way prescribed in the strategic plan ad culture statement, which clearly describes how people should treat each other. Tom Selinske and Renatta Cooper [incumbents] have that mindset.
Candidate comments have been made that the district is still top heavy in its administration. Your thoughts?
Diaz: The only thing I know is that when I started, a management audit done in conjunction with our communities was sitting on my desk. It actually recommended adding half a million to district services. Instead we had to cut $3 million and plan another $1.5 million in cuts.
It was rumored that you were offered a federal job by the Obama administration, possibly in the Department of Education. Is that true? Why reject it?
Diaz: I wasn’t offered a position in the Obama administration, but when Obama was first elected, I was contacted by Secretary of Education Duncan to submit papers in consideration of one of the positions. I decided I didn’t want to be so far removed from the classroom.
What will your monthly CalPers (retirement) payout be? How does leaving now affect that number?
Diaz: (Chuckling) First of all it’s CalSTRS. I honestly don’t know what it would be. Having me retiring at age 58 versus age 61 would be a significant reduction. I imagine in the next month or two I will figure that all out.
I’m told you’re moving back to Gilroy to be with your family. Is there a chance you’ll be taking your old job back?
Diaz: We still have a home in Gilroy, and we will likely return there or somewhere in the Bay Area.
I am making the change because I don’t want to be a superintendent any more. My next position will NOT be a superintendent position. As for Gilroy, I am sure that Gilroy has a strong superintendent now.
You said in your resignation statement, “It’s a very demanding job.” Describe the perfect candidate to replace you.
Diaz: Whoever comes into this district has to have an ability to establish relationships and partnerships with a diverse community. By diverse, I mean we have Altadena, Sierra Madre and Pasadena.
The perfect candidate has to have an instructional focus. Because of the complexities to serve three different communities, it would be helpful to have someone experienced in a diverse community. Someone who has worked without our particular student demographics.
What advice would you give to the next superintendent?
Diaz: PUSD has a lot of opportunity to improve public education so that it works for all kids. There are so many resources and assets. Strategically use those resources to provide more rigorous engaging education.
Don’t try to do this job in isolation from the community. It has to be a visible, community wide endeavor. Make sure that you have a personal relationship with folks. It’s one of the things I like to do, The work load is all day and all night, which adds to the personalization.
When I arrived, PUSD was still operating like they were still the bigger district of 32,000 students that they were 10 years ago. They were still operating like that with too many layers. They held to an image s that they were a larger urban district. The processes were less personal. Our district is still small enough that I can get out to a school. It’s a good size to have that personal contact.
I’d also pass along my favorite list of great restaurants.