Inside his office at the headquarters for the San Diego Unified School District, Superintendent Bill Kowba can sit back and smile as he takes stock of his tenure.
Kowba led the state’s second-largest school district through what he has described many times as the worst recession since the 1930s.
“We’ve survived, we’ve strived and we’re better for it,” Kowba says.
Kowba is retiring at the end of June after seven years with the district. Four of them were as the top administrator in charge of managing the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in the budget and hundreds of educators and staff members.
“We lost people and money but we never lost our sense of purpose,” he says. “We never lost our course and that was education excellence.”
Kowba feels he’s done all he can to do the budget balancing, resource stretching and it’s time for a professional educator to take the helm now and focus on several critical education issues.
Even though he’s primarily a numbers guy, Kowba lists the pinnacle of his tenure as the district’s nomination for the Broad Prize.
“You can’t apply for it. You can’t strategize to get it,” he explains. “You have to have four years of sustained growth.”
“The Broad nomination validates that their good work – their blood, sweat and tears made a difference,” he said, “Made a difference in kids over the last four years.”
Under his leadership, graduation rates improved as did standardized test scores and several propositions were passed.
One that gives more money to schools, a long-term promise that takes at least some of the financial pressure off the incoming superintendent.
The low point could be described as taking too big of a financial bite out of key departments necessary when a large organization implements drastic cuts – Human Resources and Finance.
“Every one of our departments and all of our campuses were cut. No one was immune from this terrible reality,” Kowba said. “Some took different depths of cuts and those were two I probably would’ve adjusted.”
His experience as the district’s former CFO was crucial to a tenure focused on how to balance the budget while staying on the mission to achieve academic excellence.
“It wasn’t easy and the work’s not done,“ he says noting that the challenge he called an honor and a privilege will now be in the hands of educator Cindy Marten, the former school principal handpicked by trustees to replace him.
Educators across the country are waiting to see where she takes the conversation.
An educator for 25 years, Marten made headlines in 2011 when featured in the New York Times for making significant progress in test scores at a school where 85-percent of students are English learners, 100-percent live in poverty.
Her focus will be making every neighborhood school the “school of choice.”
Her style will likely get her out in the community, making sure students and parents feel included in the process.
After years of long days at the office, Kowba says he has a lot of catching-up to do on family time.
Now, it’s with a mixed set of emotions that he faces the next challenge yet to be determined.
“I will certainly miss the great collaboration with kids, with staff,” he said.
“It’s time for me to move to another passage.”