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March 5, 2008 > Doug Gephart - Fremont Superintendent of schools

Doug Gephart - Fremont Superintendent of schools

TCV: You have announced your retirement in June. What were the factors that led to your decision?

Gephart: One of the biggest concerns I had was the void that would be created when I stepped down. People are going to be concerned about how that will affect them - whether a teacher, a principal, a director or a secretary. I had formulated a succession plan and spoke of it when asked by the Board of Trustees about what we should do next. I have been party to vacancies at the superintendent level, applying for the job and serving as interim when the board decided to hire someone from the outside. When that didn't work, I saw what happened internally to the system. I told the board that the best plan is the one with the least amount of change now and in the foreseeable future. We have an outstanding leadership team in Fremont and I believe our assistant superintendents have the skills, knowledge and capabilities of stepping in and continuing the vision that we have in this district and continuing our mission to serve our kids.

The board considered my plan and asked Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Instruction Milt Warner to serve in an interim capacity next year. Due to budget cuts and a board election in November, there is uncertainty about what will happen next year. The least amount of change is the best plan. By working internally within the system, everyone understands the culture, vision and direction we are going so if we are successful in aligning the internal pieces correctly, we will continue down the path instrumental in creating a leadership team, we won't miss a beat. The integrity of process will be protected.

TCV: How has the hierarchy at the school system been designed to maintained stability?

Gephart: The board of trustees decided to extend the assistant superintendent contracts which otherwise would have been up for renewal at the end of next year. July 1 begins a three year contract for the assistant superintendents. They are the anchors for the leadership team at the school district. Internally, we are keeping everything as stable as possible.

TCV: Why did you choose to implement this succession plan at this time?

Gephart: There was no singular trigger. My health is not an issue. The work is also not an issue; I actually am energized by the challenges and our strong leadership team and school board. It is a personal decision that has to do with spending time with my grandson and helping my daughter and her husband with a new business. I want to use my expertise and experience in a different way - consulting to help other districts and individuals - in teaching and/or mentoring process. I do not want to just sit in a rocking chair, rather refocus in an active way but have no plans to follow an active role with any school district for at least a year but have made it clear that I will be available to Dr. Warner and the board for advice or information if desired. If our transition plan works, my input will not be necessary very often, if at all.

TCV: What have you accomplished during your tenure with FUSD? What is your legacy?

Gephart: When I came to this district, it was on the heels of labor strife. The situation between the employee organizations, the district office and the board was quite contentious. I came to the district 14 years ago to see if my management style could help in any way. Initially, I thought I would be here for one year. I discovered that regardless of the position people took for whatever organization they represented, they responded differently when treated with respect and took time to listen to their position trying to solve those problems. The growth and improvement in employee/employer relationships was a goal not only in situations but in day-to-day operations. This applies not only in the Human Relations Department where I started, but with everyone including our administrators who can use this in their daily work at the schools. I believe I have been successful in establishing systems founded in fairness, consistency and integrity that have been replicated and withstood the test of time.

This has changed the opinions of how employees believe they are seen by the district office. It has also changed the opinions of the organizations that represent the employees and how they do business with the leadership in the district office. This builds credibility. So, if there is a legacy, it is one of credibility and integrity with the employees and employee organizations that has a true, lasting impression within the school district. It has taken 14 years to get to where we are and I hope the work I have done with our administrators to emphasize this will continue that in the years to come.

TCV: How about the fiscal picture?

Gephart: There are a couple of other pieces. One is the fiscal solvency of the school district. When I was in Human Resources, I monitored the cost of every single personnel decision to make sure we closely watched the balance of our funds. As a result, I have a deep insight into how our budget functions and the financial picture within the school district. This led to good decisions for our kids and staff, but always watching the bottom line of what is good for the system fiscally. This keeps us from making decisions that feel good today but we cannot pay for tomorrow. That has led to our current status of being in probably the strongest fiscal position of my 14 years in the district.

I sent a memo when the governor's budget cuts first came out and referred to myself as the "tightwad" but my mantra has always been that I will spend money we have but will not spend money we do not have. We do have a reserve - a required reserve and an additional 1% reserve that they have access to and undesignated fund balances. But everyone knows we have it; I have fully disclosed this to everybody. This is one time money so I will not spend it on ongoing costs. This year, we have earmarked another 1.3-1.6 million dollars by not filling some positions and shifting some categorical monies to support our general fund. We are in a strong position. I have been able to emphasize the need to monitor what we do, impressing this on our administrators so they think along those lines.

TCV: What is the third piece?

Gephart: When we talk about leadership and the leadership team, we have been able to create not a hierarchy pyramid but a web of leadership with interchangeable parts. I am not the only person with ideas or making decisions. This web allows people to interact at different levels regardless of title. People can stand up and take a leadership role where even the superintendent and assistant superintendents may follow that person not by title, but by intellect, creativity and ingenuity that person is offering as an idea and possible solution. When you create this type of web, removing one person may create a hole, but that can mended as the rest of the web stays in place.

Many of these things are intangible, but our employees will know and that is where my satisfaction lies.

TCV: How does this translate to the community?

Gephart: It is an extension of what is being done internally. Every Thursday, I visit our schools. That has given me insight into what is happening in the classroom. In addition, I serve on advisory boards of the Chamber of Commerce and Palo Alto Medical Foundation. We have joint meetings between the city and the school district to forge relationships with the staff of the city of Fremont. I hold public meetings with the public to allow access with citizens. These efforts have opened communications and hope that there are people at this district office who will listen and try to solve problems. If people know you are listening and trying to solve problems, they at least know you are trying. If you don't listen, they may believe you are not trying.

TCV: How is the school district dealing with unequal infill development?

Gephart: Housing is always a challenge in our district. People moving into the area do research and if they have kids, they choose areas often based on test scores. They believe the best schools have the best test scores and their children will do better at those schools. In fact, the reason for high test scores is often that bright children with interested parents often attend these schools but the teachers are 'on par' at all of our schools. You take the teaching staffs at our schools and interchange them without effect on the scores. Parents have a hard time understanding this. I can see this through my attendance at all schools in every area. Instruction is on par or even better in schools with lower test scores. Some schools with lower test scores can trace it to other factors affecting their students - home life, nutrition, parent educational levels and economic issues - and the schools are supposed to fix it. This is an ongoing challenge. But, to spite these challenges, we continue to improve the performance of our schools. We are our resources to augment these deficits with support programs but these are the same resources that are being taken away by the state.

Every time society identifies a problem, it is often from what does or does not happen at home. If enough of these issues surface, public officials want to solve the problem and designate the schools as the place to solve it. Repeatedly, our society places this additional burden of solving social issues on the schools. The business industry also looks to the schools to provide a specific work force. Pressure is placed on the schools to conform to a set of guidelines. Now you end up with an educational system designed to create a business product that is not customized for individuals. Business is, in fact, only looking for the top few percent of graduates while the rest are being judged by those criteria. That does not work. Kids are too different and motivations are too different. Our society doesn't work well when everyone is judged by the same set of skills and abilities. We aren't all going to be in the same job.

We end up with a nationwide system that says everyone must fit a similar mold or else there will be punishment. Each state has a different standard and there is no common measurement. California standards are higher than many other states. Many of the mandates for the schools can be achieved if we are given adequate resources. Schools could provide health services, nutrition, day care and all sorts of services for kids with the proper resources. So far the idea of using schools for these services has been put forward, but without the proper funding.

TCV: Is there any hope of changing this pattern?

Gephart: The city and citizens has to recognize the value of schools on our entire community. As the community identifies what is important and decides to support it, whatever it is, whether in the school system or something else that will give assurance of support no matter what the state does. This will make our community stronger. An investment in our schools is an investment in our community. People come to Fremont after looking at the school system. Competition from other communities is through school systems. People decide to move here because of many factors, but the school system is high among them. If the community can truly embrace the schools, then we become one. That is what I would like to see us evolve to in this community.

TCV: What near term effects will larger developments such as Ballpark Village and Patterson Ranch have on Fremont schools?

Gephart: We need to pay attention to this right now. While some longer term projections show some space at Walters and Kennedy to absorb some of the growth from the A's project, there is very little space at Thornton and American High School. When we look at student generation rate per household for secondary schools, it appears very small, but if you visualize an elementary school of seven grades. For the sake of argument, let's say there are 100 kids in each grade level. Once this group is at capacity, 100 kids will flow to seventh grade each year and each successive year. The impact will increase each year and if that is extrapolated to high school, that means 400 kids at the high school level. This will not happen on the first day, but ultimately the impact will be felt. We do not have the facilities for that type of impact. We have not identified the mitigation necessary for the junior and senior high schools for these developments. Our Board of Trustees has said that this is something we have to look at and get the attention of developers who have just addressed the K-6 issue of an elementary school. Those two projects are of immediate concern. An even larger concern is the impact of possible development along the Auto Mall Parkway and south corridor. In Warm Springs, we have two schools, a K-2 and 3-6 for 1,300 kids at these schools two blocks apart. The closest junior and senior high schools are Horner and Irvington. If the city rezones that area for housing, there will be no schools to service them. There needs to be a plan where acreage is set aside for future elementary and secondary sites. That is an area that will be rezoned and developed without anyplace to put the kids. That is a huge concern. I was hoping for redevelopment funds that could be used to provide an avenue to that acreage. This is a long term issue in 10-15 years but needs to be addressed now.

TCV: Anything else?

Gephart: My career in Fremont has been extremely rewarding. My association with members of the community has been truly outstanding. I personally have been rewarded and fulfilled by my association with my types of people throughout the community. I feel have contributed my time and energy not only in Human Resources but as Superintendent for school related issues, but also instrumental forging relationships between the school district and different community entities. That is my reward. I am in debt to the school district, school board but also the community has been extremely supportive. I am honored to have served as superintendent and feel the district is in great shape right now and hope that does not change in the future.

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