Welcome to the Island. Good Luck Hiring Teachers
AUSD’s new superintendent assumed his new position just in time to preside over the district’s labor negotiations.
Photo by Marcus Hänschen
In just his first few months on the job as the new superintendent of the Alameda Unified School District, Pasquale Scuderi has already witnessed Alameda’s inability to recruit top-flight teachers.
“We’ve seen candidates come in and say, ‘That’s great. I really loved my interview. I like the team, but I’ve got a family at home, too. I’m a working class teacher and I can make $10,000 more in San Leandro.’” Scuderi said. “We’re going to lose that battle 75 percent of the time. That is a dynamic I’ve got to change.”
Scuderi said teacher recruitment is harder in departments or disciplines that are typically difficult to staff, such as special education and math. “Generally, what happens is we have inexperienced teachers — trying hard — but inexperienced or unproven folks working with some of our highest-need kids and that’s a bad equation.”
So two months into his job, Scuderi is already in the thick of labor negotiations with the teachers’ union — the outcome of which could make or break how effectively he can implement his long-term vision for the school district. He arrived in the middle of bargaining with the teachers union, which has been ongoing since last spring. As of early October, he said that some distance still existed between the sides. Scuderi hoped that a new contract could be successfully negotiated by the end of the month. But at press time for this magazine, negotiations were at a precarious place, and Scuderi said talks could break in a positive or negative direction.
One hang-up is the contention of Scuderi and some school board members that the best way to improve teacher salaries in Alameda is through a parcel tax, possibly coming before voters as early as next March. Without it, Scuderi does not believe Alameda schools can be competitive.
“I tell people our recruiting slogan can’t be, ‘We’re the lowest-paid in Alameda County. Come on out!’” he said. “This is super important to me and what I’m about, in terms of leadership, because fundamentally, I don’t believe anything is a higher-leveled strategy than having as many great teachers in classrooms as we can. There’s no fad, there’s no software, there’s no new program that is going to change the game. If we don’t put the best talent in front of kids, it just ain’t going to happen.”
Curiously, the union’s response to the parcel tax proposal has been tepid even though its proceeds — possibly up to $11 million in new revenue — will go toward fortifying their own salaries, which consistently linger at the bottom in Alameda County. It’s a role-reversal from Scuderi’s time at the Berkeley Unified School District, where teachers were exuberant about campaigning for a school tax measure. But he understands the apprehension of Alameda teachers walking precincts, hat-in-hand, asking their neighbors to approve a wage increase for them.
“I hear those arguments, but I certainly think that there’s a much different way to make this appeal to the community. Everybody benefits when our schools are doing better and our schools do better when we have more higher-quality teachers.”
Increasing the revenue pie may be Alameda Unified’s best current option, Scuderi believes. It already cut $3.5 million from its budget over the past two years prior to Scuderi’s arrival. And school closings are not in the community’s best interests, he said. There also is a good chance that further cuts will ultimately start yielding increasingly diminishing returns to the school district’s overall performance, Scuderi said. “There’s a lot of good people working hard for compensation that is not currently respectful of their talents.”
There are few gripes with the performance of Alameda schools and its teachers, but chronically low teacher pay is beginning to take its toll as experienced teachers leave the island or the school district fails to attract top talent. It’s a dynamic that is central to Scuderi’s challenge in Alameda.
Another major challenge that Scuderi has set for himself is to make sure that the instructional techniques used in the district resonate with today’s students.
“Kids, today, are in the most participatory media and content culture in history and I can still walk into classrooms today and see teachers talking at them for 15 minutes straight or asking them to fill-in-the-blanks,” Scuderi said. “It’s like 19th century teaching in a 21st century context and a lot of that is what I think we ought to blow up and start over with.”
Listening to Scuderi, at times you might think you were talking to the CEO of a tech company rather than a school superintendent in the East Bay.
“We’re a sector that hasn’t evolved at the same pace as our clients,” he said. “I think a lot of kids who are disengaged are just reacting to the fact that our product is stale very often. Part of our job is selling content and selling skills to kids. We’re trying to sell them about this stuff being important and if you make it mind-numbing thing, you will see those hoodies go up and those heads hit the desks. It’s putting the pill in the hot dog. The days of having an adult lecturing a group of middle school students as though they were Ph.D. students in a lecture hall is over. It’s ineffective and who ever told you that was going to work with 12-year-olds?”
Despite the Silicon Valley patois, Scuderi said he’s not exactly advocating for technology to take over education. He just wants to use it to facilitate better interactions between students and the curriculum. “It not all about high-tech,” he said. “It’s about seeing kids doing rather than watching. When I walk into a classroom I want to see kids doing the talking, whether it’s with each other or with the instructor.”
Scuderi is still in the honeymoon phase of his employment with the district, and Alameda public officials tend to describe him in universally glowing terms. “Nice guy,” said one Alameda councilmember when asked about the new superintendent. Tall and fit, Scuderi has kind, oval, Mediterranean eyes. In a polo shirt, as he was wearing during this interview, he evokes the memory of a middle school P.E. teacher. It’s no surprise since his father was a P.E. teacher and the first in his family to go to college.
“As far as my family was concerned, he won the Nobel Prize,” Scuderi recalled. “He was the man.” His father also served as a high school football coach. “On weekends, I would watch game film with him,” he said. “My parents were divorced, so it was kind of our thing.”
Scuderi, 51, grew up in Inglewood before moving to Northern California. “I came to the Bay Area 20 years ago and never went home,” he said. Once in the East Bay, Scuderi began an impressive career trajectory over the next two decades. He taught English and social studies for six years at Helms Middle School in San Pablo before becoming vice principal at Berkeley High School. He later became its principal before moving to the Berkeley school district as assistant superintendent. Scuderi took over as Alameda superintendent of schools last July. He and his wife, who also works in education, live in Kensington, along with their two young daughters.
With this interview completed, Scuderi readied for another round of late afternoon negotiations with the teachers union. The night before, he had stuck around until late into the night. Negotiations might go on through the weekend, he added. For Scuderi, the waiting is the hardest part.
“I’ve worn out this carpet a lot over the past two months,” he said. “My negotiating team does the lion’s share of the work and I wait in my office and pace like a leopard in my office waiting for news.”