Musical chairs at San Dieguito Union High School District

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

After spending two months and $26,000 of taxpayer money on an executive search firm, the San Dieguito Union High School District’s Board of Education came around to the obvious conclusion – that deputy superintendent Rick Schmitt was the ideal candidate to replace retiring superintendent Ken Noah.

Good for them. They couldn’t have picked anyone better for the job. A natural leader, Schmitt has a thorough understanding of the district in ways no one from outside would have. He’s well-respected, a clear thinker, knowledgeable, accessible and affable.

Besides all that, Schmitt has the under-appreciated quality of connecting well with teenagers on a personal level. Although this might not seem so important for a superintendent and high-level administrator, well-removed from the daily operations of schools and frequent interactions with students, it’s a vital trait that is often overlooked.

So why did it take school board members so long to decide on their own guy after expending all that time and money?

Although $26,000 isn’t exactly like winning the lottery, it’s still a piece of change, in this era of fiscal constraint where school districts are squeezing pennies from budgets any way they can.

Even though at least one board member recommended skipping the search firm route and naming Schmitt from the start, all five eventually agreed to pay the money to conduct a thorough search.

Turns out Barbara Groth, SDUHSD board president, offered some compelling justifications.

“I think we really needed to make comparisons to see who is out there,” she said. “Until we ask and until you recruit, you don’t know.”

Because the process was so thorough, Groth said the board is “very comfortable and very confident that we made the right [decision].”

She said it was time and money well spent.

“I know there were people who were rooting for Rick from the very beginning, but I can now go to the public with a clear conscience and say we searched and had really good people,” she said. “We carefully weighed all the pros and cons of each one of them and this is the best one.”

Currently SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of educational services, Schmitt was moved up into a new position of deputy superintendent, effectively second in command, several months before existing superintendent Ken Noah announced his retirement.

Once the news hit that Noah was leaving, many felt Schmitt would be chosen immediately. But Groth said no.

“He was not the heir apparent,” she said. When the new position was approved, “we were not looking for a superintendent, so that did not come into play whatsoever.”

Search firm Leadership Associates brought in 16 applicants who were narrowed down to three to interview – Schmitt and two others, one from northern California and one from southern California.

Groth declined to name the other two candidates because they are both employed in other districts, but she said one was from a larger district and one from a district of similar size.

All three had experience coming through the ranks as principals of middle and high schools. But the other two had more experience at higher-level management, she said. “They were good, strong candidates,” she said.

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