The Superintendent Incident


Despite good efforts and intentions, the inconvenient truth is that our public school and community are in crisis.   Enrollment is shrinking, local families are dissatisfied with the educational experience, few new families are coming, and even fewer are staying more than a year or two.

We have funding.  We have small class sizes.  We have an idyllic location next to one of the most vibrant cities in the world.   We now need focused, inspired leadership to leverage those assets.

One December 5th, our School Superintendent issued a dramatic press release and sent an email to the school community charging that I threatened him in his office a week earlier.

He may have been legitimately unnerved by our meeting, but his response went too far, and to my mind demonstrates his inclination to use a heavy hand with those who oppose or critique him.

I was not expecting his decision to attack, and nor did the school board member he spoke with the night before when promising to get back to them the next day regarding his thoughts about our meeting.

We were, naively, expecting him to either tell us to prepare and bring our concerns to the next board meeting, or that he was indeed planning to move on and advance his career elsewhere.

Instead, after consulting his district provided “attorney” and “media advisor,” he put forward an exaggerated narrative that stoked fear and incited community members to believe the worst.  He explains this in his letter here.

  • He claimed a disgruntled school board candidate held “secret meetings” and threatened him to the point that he wrote: “I have accepted the support of a retired police officer who has offered to assist me personally should any illegal action be taken against me or my family.”
  • He led people to believe that he was given a mafia style ultimatum, rather than the courtesy of a firm but well intentioned heads up that a number of parents were going to build a case against him at the next public board meeting if he planned to stay on.
  • He led people, and likely our overloaded principal, to believe that he was being forced to immediately stop work December 31, which he knew was not the case as made clear in the email I sent to him after our meeting.
  • He led people to believe that I was going to lead some sort of boisterous protest and demonstration – when it should be obvious to anyone that is not my style, not consistent with my character, and unlikely to be effective.  I try to build arguments with facts.
  • And he attributed phrases like “personal” and “ugly” to how I would act, rather than acknowledge that I said there were some very angry parents and their petitioning against him would likely be personal and ugly.
  • He also claimed I said I would “pretend this meeting never happened,” which would be non-sensical except in the context of allowing him a face saving exit.  I arranged the meeting by email, mid day, in his office with secretaries out front.
  • He proactively and effectively sandbagged and character assassinated a critic, before they could present their case.

Good for him, perhaps, if he were a politician.  Except for the fact that we are a school, tasked with the solemn duty of educating children.  And to do so well, dissent and critique must be allowed.

Those who know me called right away concerned that something didn’t resonate.  Many others signed letters of condemnation, without calling to ask what happened, and why.

In the spirit of transparency, here is our complete email exchange.

  • My emails to John and the school board. (links to be added)
  • John’s emails, press releases and replies to me.  (links to be added)

Why I asked John Carroll to consider resigning.

Far too many parents have been withdrawing their children in recent years because the school has not been meeting their needs, particularly in the upper grades.   Almost no one new has come here despite the school’s funding and resources. 

Six class sizes have shrunk to a point where parents are withdrawing children because of too few peers.  This is a serious tipping point.

Our superintendent is not positively impacting the school enough to save it.  The school exists to serve the children in the community, not provide jobs for teachers. We are not serving the children and families here, or they would stay.  However uncomfortable it is to rock the boat, we must.

While Michelle Stephens is the operational leader, she is new and needs full-time leadership help.  Despite repeated requests, it took her 3 months to get out a 100 child student directory.  It should have taken 2 days.  Somehow John couldn’t help her or advise her.  She realized in November that not all kids have reliable internet at home to do homework, when John could have brought her up to speed.  These are a couple of examples – canaries in the coal mine.

The school is a “turnaround” project that needs to serious change or will continue to decline.  Michelle needs help and John is not the bold strong leader that will help her inspire and lead the community in doing the big things we need to do.  He is here at most 2 days a week.  

The problem with John’s leadership style.

I’ve seen first hand the leadership qualities and team “norms” that need to be established to assemble strong, high-performance teams.  John hasn’t been exhibiting them.

Specifically missing here are the following:

  • The leader needs to model and insist on the highest quality performance, so others will follow.
  • The leader needs to have a full time laser focus on a big vision to inspire and attract that level of performance.
  • It needs to be evident that the leader deeply respects the team, so they will want him to succeed.
  • The leader needs to practice radical truth and transparency – allowing for all views to be freely expressed.
  • The leader needs to care more about the success of the team, than of his own success.

Equally concerning is that I’ve seen John not fully investigate mistakes, not do postmortems, not perform student/parent exit interviews, and not seek out ways to closely track individual student performance multiple times per year.  I’ve heard that he has encouraged others to behave this way, and not proactively and contextually investigate mistakes as well.

We see this with the very late and well over budget pre-k playground, avoidable office flooding (and $100k cost) had a septic alarm under his authority not been ignored, solar panels that have not being kept clean, very poor CAASPP scores, etc.  

We need a lot to happen right now and a part time superintendent isn’t likely able to make enough happen.

John can’t lead a community he doesn’t deeply respect.

This concerns me the most – and his decision to publicize and spin our meeting into an attack that requires police protection for his family confirms my fears about his unsuitability to lead our school.  He is not respecting the truth of our meeting. His ego was triggered that I would have the audacity to question his authority and he struck out with half truths and a twisted narrative to make it seem I’ve held secret meetings and committed a crime – which is simply not the case.  I went into his office to give him a heads up and an option out before it came to this.  He’s a politician, who as he says “knows the superintendent game.”  He’s not being the inspired leader we need.

John cares about his job, but he doesn’t sufficiently care about the community.  In my first meeting with him when Jason resigned, he openly disparaged board members, and called the community as a “backwater,” in a way that led me to believe he really doesn’t think about the long term success of the school and community  I had no sense the was excited to create something great out here, quite the opposite.

When asked if he was okay with the late notice Jason gave which I felt blindsided the board and wasn’t good for the school, and a thorough principal search, John answered that it was much better for Jason as he will now get more money, a bigger school, etc. and that Jason stayed long enough.  He then talked about his longer than usual tenure. He didn’t seem properly concerned and invested in our school.

When Jason resigned, John tried to take over the hiring process during a time, as he explained in his office, that he was also trying to force an issue with two of his board members (I never quite get the details of his thinking).  He didn’t seem to understand how crucial it is to have the wider team of teachers, staff and parents, be fully involved in the selection of the principal. This is a huge management blindspot. The unions had to fight for the right to be able to be involved and ensure they were properly represented on the hiring committee.

John had Jason’s resignation in hand on April 24th, and likely knew of it for months, yet only wrote to the school community 18 days later on May 8th, with only 10 days left open to receive applications!  He didn’t want input.  I suspected he had already spoken to a candidate by then , which later seemed to be the case, though was not Michelle.

I met with him and told him I’d make an intro to the Interim Head of School at the Khan Lab School, who was completing a highly visible head of school hire and may have candidates they could refer to us.  John never responded to the intro email I sent, nor the follow-up email I sent asking him to. He just ignored the intro and never replied to me.

John sent out a survey asking people to give him 5 words to describe the next principal.  That is absurd. When going into a hiring meeting, I heard Johanna ask him if he wanted the survey results, and he said “no, I know what they are going to say,” before taking them, and the detail she suggested he take as well.

John had this rushed, controlled, and uninspired principal search process, and job posting.  He was not looking for the inspiring turnaround principal the school clearly needs and deserves, and while I suspect she doesn’t know it, he is likely not helping Michelle be that person.  He refused to do a post mortem on Jason.

He doesn’t sufficiently respect his hires, the community, or the parents.  I have been consistent in sharing this concern, as Michelle will attest with my main piece of advice to her in August being a story about the importance, and magic that happens, when showing deep respect to others.

It seems that John has been violating our trust, if not outright breaking the law.

A local, very well qualified candidate for the Pre-K Director position, applied in 2017.  Their application was never acknowledged by John, or anyone working for him.  When the resume is shown to two on the hiring committee, they didn’t recall ever seeing it.  I’m not sure if this is illegal, but not presenting a qualified resume to the hiring committee, certainly violates the spirit of fair hiring in a public school and the trust we put in him to bring in candidates.  It also demoralizes turns off that family who might otherwise have children in the school.  

How I asked John Carroll to consider resigning.

The point of meeting with John privately (originally with others) was to give John the opportunity to avoid an extended public battle with complaints aired publicly at open board meetings.  It seemed in the best interests of everyone. We need to recruit people to this school.  I want change with minimal bad press so asking John to quietly resign seemed better than an extended public effort.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, I set a meeting up by email,  openly visited John in his office, and asked if he would resign by December 31st.  He clearly explained that the end of the year (June) would be better, when he was pretty sure his contract ran out.  I said fine, confirming that in a follow-up email that makes this clear.

I told him that myself and others have serious concerns about the direction of the school, his leadership style and results, and my observation that several more parents are close to pulling their kids out, which subsequently happened.  I shared that I am personally at a point of action and will make a strong public case for his removal if he doesn’t resign.  

I wasn’t going to present and argue my case, or speak for others, alone in his office – beyond stating the fact that people want serious change at the school.   The only place to make the case would be in the board meetings which is covered by the media.