What’s Next for Alameda Schools?
A more activist school board with interest in managing the district’s business says so long to Superintendent Sean McPhetridge.
Photo by Chris Duffey
At a regular board meeting of the Alameda Unified School District on Feb. 25, following a closed session, Mia Bonta, president of the board of trustees, announced that current Superintendent Sean McPhetridge would be leaving his position at the end of June.
MePhetridge commented to the audience, “It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve as superintendent of AUSD these past years. I look forward to working with parents, staff, and community to finish my work here and assist in a smooth transition. Please know that I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to have worked in AUSD all these years.”
A hush fell over the room. Many were surprised by the announcement. Some started sending texts and wondering what had happened. Judith Klinger, the president of the Alameda Education Association, was running a few minutes late for the meeting and got a text from a friend with the news. “The room was gob-stopped. I came in three minutes late and a friend texted me, ‘Did they fire Sean?’” said Klinger.
In the November 2018 election, Mia Bonta and Gary Lim won seats on the board, and joined incumbents Gray Harris, Ardella Dailey, and Jennifer Williams, a shift that changed the dynamic and McPhetridge’s support among trustees to just Dailey and Williams.
It was not the board that had selected McPhetridge as superintendent four years earlier after he’d served as interim superintendent. His former boss and principal of Alameda High School, Margie Sherratt, was the board president and chose him along with Mike McMahon, Barbara Kahn, Neal Tam, with Trish Spenser opposed.
But times change and so do boards, with the current one demonstrating a more activist approach with more hands-on attention to AUSD’s business.
Nobody, including McPhetridge, would say whether he was pushed out by Bonta, Lim, and Harris. “He and this board came to the conclusion that it would be better that he left,” Klinger said.
When asked about his departure on a day in early May, McPhetridge, 54, seated in a conference room at the AUSD office, danced around it, too, but said he’s at peace with his departure. “I know how it must seem, but it was a mutual agreement between me and the board. It’s been fun; it’s been very rewarding personally and professionally to serve in these different roles … I feel very lucky, grateful, and proud to have been here. I’m looking forward to beginner’s mind, the next stage in my life.
“I gravitate toward harmony more than I gravitate toward conflict,” he said. “I think that in the context we’re in here now, the district could benefit from fresh eyes. And I think in the place and the time we are now in Alameda, I could benefit from a new experience. … I came to realize that it would be good for all of us for there to be a change.”
At five years, McPhetridge’s tenure will be the same as his predecessor’s, Kristen Vital, and above the average nationally for school superintendents. His road to the top began nearly 20 years ago when former Alameda High School Principal Sherratt hired McPhetridge, then an ESL coordinator, college coordinator, and death row instructor at San Quentin State Prison, as an instructional vice principal at Alameda High School. After three years, he left to pursue his doctorate in education at Harvard University and returned in 2005 to serve as director of secondary and career technical education and principal of the Alameda Science and Technology Institute. In 2010, he took the job as Vital’s assistant superintendent.
It was a challenging time for him professionally. School board meetings were often contentious, and board members, such as Trish Spencer, challenged Vital’s policies and treatment of employees and clashed with McPhetridge as AUSD’s presenter at the lectern. He also had to present AUSD’s plan if the Measure A parcel tax didn’t pass in 2011 at school PTA meetings. “They called me Reverend McFearsome because I would wear a black suit and a white shirt and black tie. I probably looked like a funeral director. And I’d say, ‘Hey, so sorry, if you don’t pass this parcel tax, this is what we’re going to have to lose.’”
Although she put innovative academic programs in place during her tenure, Vital had poor relationships with teachers and their union, the Alameda Education Association, but McPhetridge worked to rebuild that relationship. He completed his doctorate in 2013 during a sabbatical and was rehired as interim superintendent in the summer of 2014 following Vital’s departure before being appointed superintendent in February 2015.
Klinger has respect and admiration for the job McPhetridge has done to work with the union. “I call him our philosopher king, He came in when things were so hostile and toxic. He did a lot to restore relations. He created peace with the labor unions. There’s respect and no condescension,” she said.
McPhetridge said he’s happy to have passed contracts these past five years and have better relations with the unions.
In January 2019, Alameda teachers received a 4.5 percent salary increase that was paid for with nearly $2 million in cuts to the 2018-19 AUSD budget. Teachers were laid off and programs cut. But even with that, Alameda teachers pay ranks second lowest in Alameda County. “It wasn’t a poke in the eye,” said Klinger about the raise.
Trustee Dailey said she found McPhetridge’s facilitation of last year’s budget what Alameda needed. “He had the ability to pull people together, work with the board and process hard decisions. He always focused on equity and quality of our educational programs,” she said.
But given AUSD’s finances, McPhetridge said more budget cuts and depressed teachers’ salaries are inevitable without a larger parcel tax. “Alameda doesn’t have as big a parcel tax as Albany, Berkeley, Piedmont. We have to go after bigger parcel taxes,” said McPhetridge, who was gratified by the 74 percent passage of Measure B in 2016, the current AUSD parcel tax that pays for teachers’ salaries, smaller class sizes, music, and athletics.
Along with Measure B, Alameda voters have shown their support of AUSD with the passage of Bond Measure I in 2014, a $179.5 million facilities bond that has provided money to upgrade schools.
Dailey agreed that a new parcel tax will be needed in the next few years. “Neither the federal government nor the state funds education properly. How we fund it going forward, it will be an issue that has to addressed by the board. It’s the same issue districts are facing across the state,” she said.
But McPhetridge predicted some Alamedans may be resistant and suffer from tax fatigue.
Klinger isn’t convinced a new parcel tax is needed. “I know Sean believes that. I’m not entirely sure there isn’t money within the district. Look what happened in Oakland, Dublin, and Fremont when those districts were pressed. After teachers went on strike, they found the money for raises. I do know that teachers don’t want to go knocking on doors asking people for a raise. The new superintendent will have to face the issue. It’s salaries,” she said.
McPhetridge called the growing expense for special education in AUSD’s budget one that is out of control. Likewise, he said the return of full funding to the Local Control Funding Formula to pre-2008 levels and increased and unfunded mandates from the state for school districts’ Public Employees Retirement System and State Teachers Retirement System contributions place too much strain on AUSD.
McPhetridge said during his tenure he has had supporters and critics, as will any superintendent. “You have to have a thick skin and an open heart to do the job,” he said. “What I love about Alameda is people speak their truth to power. In some ways, you have a very activist, engaged populous here. I think we have to work on more community engagement.”
As his tenure comes to an end this month, McPhetridge is applying for other superintendent positions in the Bay Area. The school board began the search for a replacement in March with the help of Leadership Associates. It also held public meetings and posted an online survey on the district’s website about the search. Applications were due in April. The board planned to conduct interviews in May and appoint a new superintendent in June in time to start the job Aug. 1.