October 4, 2005 > Douglas Gephart takes the helm
Douglas Gephart takes the helm
Fremont schools ask for guidance
With the abrupt removal of Fremont Unified School District Superintendent, John Rieckewald, the school board turned to Associate Superintendent of Human Resources, Douglas Gephart for leadership during the 2005-06 school year. A statement issued on September 20, 2005 revealed that Mr. Gephart had been appointed as "Acting Superintendent" swiftly followed by a statement dated September 28, 2005 that amended his appointment to "Interim Superintendent." Previously, Gephart served as interim superintendent during the 2002-03 school year. TCV spoke with Superintendent Gephart about his return to the superintendent's office and how he will guide the district through the current school year.
TCV: You have been in this position before, but this time you are being asked on short notice to take responsibility for the district after the school year has begun. What are the immediate challenges for the district?
Gephart: Whenever there is a sudden opening, particularly in a leadership role, we have to find out who is going to fill several positions. Internally, there is a domino effect since each vacated position requires someone to fill it. One of the greatest challenges within the next few weeks is to line up all the people who are going to replace someone else with the least amount of disruption to the system. Once those people are named, they need to transition to their new assignment.
Because I have been in this position before and it is my 12th year in the district, most employees know who I am and have some level of experience with me, either as an interim superintendent or associate superintendent for H.R. (Human Relations). Most people understand what that means for them in terms of my leadership of the district. I don't sense a high level of anxiety in the district because of the change. In my opinion, the district is in an excellent position to move forward continuing education for the students.
My priority is to take responsibility for the district and allow our employees to handle their responsibilities so we provide the best possible education for the kids. I believe the staff of this school district will do just that. The goal is a seamless transition from an outside perspective.
TCV: Will there be a philosophical change in the district?
Gephart: There are many challenges in the educational system. Some of those can be met internally and some are presented to us by society as a whole, the economy or regulations by the state and federal governments. One difference is that I believe we have outstanding educators in this district and will be seeking their input on many different issues. We can collectively use the best ideas from the best people. I will use that same approach with the community.
We will embark on a process of trying to understand the status of technology in our district; to establish a procedure in which the community gives us input. I plan to create a committee to help us formulate a vision for technology in this district. We are going to use community people as well as district people in that process. As we analyze where we are today and the vision, we are going to find a gap. It will then be our job to find which building blocks to use first to begin filling the gap. Once we do that, we can talk about strategies to implement the plan.
As the leader of this district, I am trying to pool the resources, intellectual and financial, of our community. That will take some time, but we will begin that process soon.
TCV: Your emphasis seems to be on the technological aspects of our schools. What about other areas of education?
Gephart: The technological piece I spoke of will be very focused. Besides technology, another goal is to improve communication within the district, with our parents and the community. We will use the same approach - solicit community input - to develop a vision. Once we have that vision, we can map out a plan for prioritizing the resources we have and develop strategies to find new resources that will help us implement the plan.
TCV: How will you reach out to the community? Through established leadership, large public meetings, or...?
Gephart: The most effective means is through existing structures. We have PTA (Parent Teacher Association), PTO (Parent Teacher Organization), booster clubs and parent support groups and board adopted appointed commissions and committees. In addition, one our greater challenges is to get the message out to the community in general.
We can send information out with students and put it on our website, but we also have to use the media as much as possible. One of the great disconnects is that parents in the community may want to become involved, but do not know how. We need to look at ways to get the message out to let them know we want them to be involved. When they show up, we have to be prepared to work with them and use their ideas. We can't reach everybody using one brush stroke; information must flow through multiple means including our website, school communications and the media.
TCV: Do you have plans to reach out to the business community, especially small businesses that may not have personal connections with the school district?
Gephart: The business community is vital to the district. Someone in my role needs to go to the businesses by attending association meetings and service clubs and talk about what we are doing in the school district. I can share how this is a benefit for the community and how certain decisions they make can impact us. This would not be to ask for something, but rather bring them into the fold by informing them of what we are all about. If we can do that, it makes it easier to create business partnerships.
We have a partnership with PG&E at Warm Springs Elementary School. The employees come to the school and provide services and teach classes. It is a phenomenal experience for both PG&E employees and the kids. I would like to see that type of relationship expanded using other businesses at other schools. Our involvement with the business community doesn't necessarily involve just asking for money. As an example, the technology plan I spoke of earlier can benefit from business people who are an outstanding resource to develop that vision. By tapping into that intellectual resource, who knows where that could lead?
TCV: Is the school system growing in population? How does school population affect the district?
Gephart: We are very close in ADA (Average Daily Attendance) this year to what we had last year. In the last three years there has been a slight decline in enrollment. If we look at our enrollment trends over a period of time - in my 12 years with the district - we have been just over 31,000 and just over 29,000 students, growing or declining by 200-300 students every year. If you stand back, you might say we have been around 30,000 students for a long time. The challenge is that if we plan for 30,500 students and only 30,100 students show up, the impact can be significant. The financial difference of 200 kids can be $1 million. Since our budget is so lean, this can create a big problem.
If the ADA for a year is lower than the year before, we can claim the prior year's number. So, for one year we get a reprieve, but if the ADA continues to decline, we will have a declining ADA income. When the state withheld $2 billion from the schools two years ago, it hurt us. That money would have given us some breathing room. If it had been repaid this year (it was not), it would have also given us some breathing room.
TCV: Are you expecting a relatively quiet year for labor negotiations?
Gephart: There are cycles to labor relations issues. Whenever there are open contracts, there is a give and take. In my role as associate superintendent for human resources and serving as the district spokesperson for collective bargaining, I was able to get agreements that are wrapped up for last year, this year and next year. I do not anticipate any major issues on the horizon.
Some propositions on the ballot this year can impact the educational community, but not in the sense that if passed, it will have a ripple effect in our schools. Initiatives about health benefits affect employees in general. One that is about teacher tenure means that our new teachers would be on a five year tenure cycle rather than a two year cycle. If it passes, we would have to work with our unions and teacher associations to create new guidelines.
This year is a very good year; we are able to give a cost of living adjustment to our employees and have a very smooth relationship with our unions. I am optimistic and think we will have a very positive year. If any new and unforeseen event occurs, we will deal with it.
TCV: Anything else you would like to add?
Gephart: I really value the work that our employees do for our kids. Fremont can be extremely proud of its school district. Our test scores are very good; even in the lowest performing schools with the greatest challenges. Our lowest performing school is over 700 where the state average is probably under 600. The state's original goal was to get every school to 800. As a district, our average API (Academic Performance Index) score is over 800. We are one of a small number of school districts that proudly talk about that type of progress. As superintendent, I am not only proud of our schools but of the district as a whole. I am looking forward to providing leadership so the Fremont Unified School District is not only an entity within the city, but serves as an integral partner of the community.