Musical chairs at San Dieguito Union High School District


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.

San Dieguito’s last two superintendents were recruited from outside the district. “We were open to bring in someone who has been a superintendent in another highly performing district,” she said. “There is something to be said for new eyes.”

Groth cited a number of reasons why the board settled on Schmitt instead.

“He knows his stuff, and he’s ready to step up,” she said. “Compared to the other very good candidates who had more experience, Rick came out as definitely the better fit for our district.”

Groth said they “grilled him” to learn how he would perform as a superintendent because “he has not sat in that chair and has never acted like one because that was not his position.”

“It was his vision of the district that was exciting,” she said. “It was building on what we have but yet putting his own mark on it. It really all fell into place.”

“He made it very clear he can and will be a very successful superintendent,” she said. “He’s really grown as a professional. I was really impressed.”

Groth said Schmitt was focused, candid about the district’s challenges and accomplishments, and acknowledged some of the issues which she said include closing the achievement gap, working with severe budget cutbacks, and overseeing the district’s recently approved $449 million General Obligation bond and the projects.

“He is definitely ready to be a superintendent, and it’s going to be a really good direction for San Dieguito,” she said.

No drastic changes

Ken Noah, who came to San Dieguito five years ago as superintendent, was pleased with the board’s decision to pick Schmitt.

“I know what his talents and skills and abilities are,” Noah said. “I believe he will provide excellent leadership for the district.”

Noah said that “Rick has been such an integral part in helping shape and support the direction in the five years I’ve been here, and I know that work is not only going to continue but it’s going to grow. And that’s gratifying to me.”

Noah said Schmitt has the full support and respect of the district’s leadership team. When they were called together to hear the news, “they were thrilled,” he said.

“I certainly felt Rick was the right guy and had all the requisite skills and talents,” he said. “I’m happy the board in their process made that selection.”

Schmitt moved to Carmel Valley from the Bay Area with his family in 1999 to work as principal of Coronado High School. He began his career in the district in 2003 as principal of Torrey Pines High School where he spent three years until being appointed associate superintendent of educational services.

“This is my community so I have perspective as a parent and as an educator,” Schmitt said. “I’ve lived here for 14 years. That’s a whole generation of K-12 kids coming through.”

When asked what he offered that the other candidates didn’t, he said he didn’t know who they were but felt his “intimate knowledge of all our communities … is a clear advantage for someone who already works in the organization.”

Schmitt said he was “flattered and humbled” by the selection, saying picking an internal candidate generally means the board supports the focus and direction of the district.

“To me that’s a clear signal that they liked our work, they liked our team,” he said. “They liked the direction, they liked Ken’s leadership style.”

Schmitt said he and Noah “see the world very similarly in terms of what our work is. He begins and ends with supporting students and working hard to have a positive impact on the lives of students and staff.”

Schmitt has no immediate plans to make drastic changes. He intends to “stay the course” in general but acknowledged that changes will occur in two major ways.

One is the national transition to Common Core standards for English and math, and the other is managing the district’s Proposition AA $449 million bond.

He said, though, that new developments in budgets, enrollment, boundaries and other considerations may mean that “the answers in 2013 might not be the answers in 2014.”

Schmitt is proud of the progress the district has made over the past few years – “some unprecedented achievement gains in spite of historic budget cuts,” he said.

When the announcement was made to staff and the room erupted in applause, “I felt a lot of cheer in the room,” he said.

At the May 16 board meeting, trustees will officially appoint Schmitt as the district’s next superintendent, effective July 1. Contract details will be finalized for approval at the board’s next meeting on June 6. Under the current superintendent’s contract, Noah is being paid $215,000 plus a $6,000 per year auto allowance, with health and retirement benefits.

More openings

With Schmitt’s move into the top spot, his position of deputy superintendent and associate superintendent of educational services (work he continued to do as deputy superintendent) are now both open.

In addition, Brian Kohn, principal of Canyon Crest Academy, recently resigned to take a position in northern California, and Anna Pedroza, principal of Oak Crest Middle School and former principal of Earl Warren Middle School, is also leaving.

This leaves at least four vacancies, although whether the deputy superintendent position gets filled is questionable

Smart money is on Mike Grove, executive director of curriculum and assessment, to take Schmitt’s old job. And we can expect to see some musical chairs as people and jobs get shuffled around a bit.

“Part of the strength of the district is we’re growing our own administrators,” Groth said. “These are very competent people. You find someone you know is a star and you encourage that ability and give them opportunities to learn and to practice their craft.”

She said the board will likely be involved in principal selection. “Bringing in principals is huge,” she said.

“The next month and a half is a transition time where I need to be respectful of the fact that Rick is going to be the superintendent,” said Noah, commenting that Schmitt needs to select people he can work with and support. “So that’s a complicating piece to this.”

The district may look outside for the person to run Canyon Crest Academy, Noah said, although “we do have a number of very capable people in the district that we’re going to look at to fill a number of positions.”

“There is lots of movement in the district, [with] a number of administrators looking for different options,” Schmitt said. “Our goal is by June 14 to have all our pieces in place.”

Enrollment for the 2012-2013 school year at the four San Dieguito schools in the southern portion of the district, according to the May 2 board report, is: 1,493 at Carmel Valley Middle School, 706 at Earl Warren Middle School, 2,585 at Torrey Pines High School, and 1,821 at Canyon Crest Academy.

Enrollment at San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas is 1,554, and at La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad it’s 2,047.

San Dieguito educates about 12,000 students in grades 7-12, in four middle schools, four high schools, and two alternative schools. Feeder elementary school districts include Del Mar, Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe, Cardiff and Encinitas.

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at