Office of Education in Turmoil as Board Considers Sending Superintendent Packing

Dr. Xavier De La Torre provides guidance and oversees the work of 31 school districts, 17,000 teachers and 280,000 students under the umbrella of the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE). In his role as county superintendent of education, he also leads an office of about 1,800 employees. But in just a little more than a year and a half on the job, De La Torre is facing the very real prospect of being fired or asked to resign.

Interviews with education officials inside and outside the SCCOE, as well conversations with more than half of the seven elected Board of Education trustees, all of whom agreed to speak only on background, paint a picture of a superintendent whose professional career is on the brink. In a Nov. 6 meeting, the Board intends to confer with its legal counsel in closed session and weigh its options on De La Torre.

At least two board members are pushing for his removal and “it wouldn’t take much to push a couple more over,” says another board member. Four votes would be enough to terminate De La Torre’s contract, which expires in February 2015.

Complaints of cronysim and bullying have dogged the SCCOE in the last year—not just by De La Torre—and there are also concerns that the schools chief fled his previous post as superintendent of Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, in advance of an investigation that found administrators were distorting state and federal test results. De La Torre’s top four deputies at that district have been suspended, and it’s likely he would be on paid leave if he were still there. A second investigation is currently looking into who changed Socorro students’ grade levels to keep them from scoring low on tests, and De La Torre has publicly denied any knowledge of such actions.

Districts receive grants and other funding for better test scores, and a superintendent who oversaw Soccoro’s sister district in El Paso has already pleaded guilty to fraud for skewing results. He is now serving more than three years in federal prison.

De La Torre, who declined multiple interview requests through intermediaries, found himself in conflict with SCCOE staff within just a few months after taking the job in February 2012. Given direction by the Board to make the SCCOE staff leaner and more efficient, pushback was all but guaranteed.

“Xavier kind of walked into a hornet’s nest,” says one board member, who says still sees a lot of potential in the superintendent. “There’s always going to be complaints.”

De La Torre cut 33 positions, many of them managers. Some positions were reinstated, but the superintendent made sure to promote people he trusted to serve on his cabinet. Some within the office viewed the appointments as bringing in a bunch of “yes” people.

“It’s a political cheap shot to come into an environment and say, ‘I’m going to blow up this administration, I’m cutting the fat, this place has been a country club,’” says an employee within the SCCOE. “He was making his reorganization plan within four months of arriving.

“He came in and said, ‘I know what needs to be done here’ and sort of imposed this plan in relatively short order, which devastated the organization internally. It was like, ‘What in the world is he doing?’ It really destabilized the organization.”

Called everything from “cordial” to “aloof” to “brusque,” De La Torre was carrying out trustees’ directions, according to several board members, although not necessarily in the manner they would prefer. The layoffs were seen as a necessary step to move on from the days of former superintendent Chuck Weis, who had a reputation as an amiable boss but often butted heads with the Board over implementing change.

“The difference in office morale from the previous superintendent, Chuck Weis, has been drastic, it’s night and day,” an SCCOE source says. “It sounds terrible, because it will sound like you’re romanticizing the guy—and every leader has flaws—but Chuck was one of the top county superintendent leaders around the state.”

That’s a bit of revisionist history, according to one board member, who has yet to come to a firm opinion on De La Torre’s fate.

“[Weis] knew everybody’s birthday and everybody’s dog’s name, but he wasn’t fiscally responsible,” the board member says.

De La Torre’s push to clear redundancies is more to blame for the problems within the office, the board member adds. “In every meeting, we ask our superintendent to clean house. We knew all the time that he was doing all of these things.

“I don’t believe the whole system is in jeopardy, but I do think that his style is lacking a little.”

What the Board didn’t realize was how quickly De La Torre was tagged with the reputation of being a bully within the office. Sources say Linda Aceves, a now retired chief schools officer, and Kelly Calhoun, the SCCOE’s chief technology officer, filed a joint complaint against De La Torre for his hostility in the workplace. The issue was resolved internally, but just this August another complaint involving De La Torre appointees was filed with the state Public Employee Relations Board. The case is still in the investigation phase.

A flurry of staff emails for and against De La Torre became public in July, when Nimrat Johal, the SCCOE director of district business advisory services, made clear she is no casual fan of her boss. In an email to the Board, which 19 other SCCOE employees signed, Johal defended the superintendent thus: “The Board desired to see some of the same qualities in the new superintendent as those modeled by the likes of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Ronald Reagan, to name a few. When Dr. De La Torre was hired, it soon became apparent what the Board had seen in him.”

The reverence then goes a step further. “He is confident, independent, inspiring, persevering, independent and, above all, very humble. I have personally witnessed him interacting with school district board members and other superintendents. He conducts himself with poise. In all these interactions, he naturally gains a position of superiority due to his immense knowledge and high intellect.”

This was around the same time the Board gave De La Torre a dissatisfactory review and decided to hire a personnel attorney for advice on how to deal with the one employee whose contract they control—De La Torre supervises all other SCCOE employees. About a month later, the Board took an additional step by hiring Tom Delapp, a communications consultant who was hired as an “executive coach,” as one board member put it.

Delapp, who did not respond to a request for comment, receives $150 per hour, plus expenses, to work with De La Torre on his management style. According to a contract signed by the two men, Delapp is not to be paid more than $15,000 over the course of a year to coach the superintendent on how to be a good superintendent.

On top of all of this, the investigation into Socorro’s test scores is expected to wrap up very soon, and board members say that will certainly be taken into consideration when determining the superintendent’s future in Santa Clara County.

“The evaluation is ongoing as far as his performance,” one board member says. “We had a performance improvement plan since we did the evaluation, and he’s been working on that and we have regular reviews along the way to see how he’s doing. It’s hard to say right now which way I would go, but I’m not really able to talk about it. Until the investigation actually comes out, I’m withholding judgment on him.”

Josh Koehn is the managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.

5 Comments

  1. It is interesting that the microscope is trained on the County Superintendent.  But recall that this is the third one in a row to be dirtied up by deliberately slanted, one-sided reporting in the Mercury News, and set up for ouster.

    As far as my friends and I know from close contact with a number of educators on the county and local levels, this County Superintendent has done a superb job in clarifying duties and responsibilities in the county office that imploded when the next-to-last Superintendent was chased out of office by a the Dirty Merky and a weak board which moved to hire a fairly lazy Superintendent, give him large sums, and then oust him.

    Now the Dirty Merky and weak-willed board members are agitating for the current Superintendent’s removal.

    This pattern of dysfunction and incompetence by the county board needs to be looked at closely.  Please turn the microscope around and take a good look at what makes the board into a merry-go-round for qualified, effective superintendents like Xavier De La Torre.

    • I agree with the one-sided reporting, hence will not spend one hard earned dime on a subscription to the SJ Merc.

      But -what do SCCBOE members seek to accomplish by speaking ‘off the record’ with SJI?  What would possess them to speak to a reporter about confidential employee issues?  Did they realize that the reporter would seek opinions from a majority (perhaps all?) of the SCCBOE members?  This does not look good for the board. It tarnishes their image with the public, and makes people ask whether or not the board is qualified to do its job and whether or not the board is qualified to manage its enormous budget.  If board members aren’t willing to speak with a reporter and have their names published with their comments, then they shouldn’t provide any comments. 

      I’ve worked for the government.  A country club atmosphere in a taxpayer-paid for agency can definitely develop when the constraints of private industry, and the need to earn every dollar rather than receive public dollars, aren’t in place.

  2. Sounds like the SSCOE board has a bad track record at hiring supes.

    Don’t blame the media for writing about this stuff. They are doing us a favor by reporting this.

    To correct one problem the board has created another, and perhaps made things worse. Besides de la Torre’s hefty salary, the board has now hired legal counsel to deal with legal issues arising from his management and also employed someone to help him groom his management style. Basically, throwing more money at a person who was hired to save the district money.

    For the board’s and de la Torres sake, I hope he is exonerated of any complicity in the Socorro test score rigging scandal. Irrespective of what the outcome is there, the board needs to exercise better due diligence when vetting prospective employees, especially the leader of the school district.

    Poor leadership begets poor leaders.

  3. Regardless of the Superintendent purported flaws, what a cowardly hatchet job from publicly elected members of a Board of Public Education.
    Shameful that they would not even have the courage to publicize their own names.

  4. Oh boy.

    The voters of Santa Clara County really are saps.

    (No offense intended to the honest and hard-working SAP Company.)

    The voters give the SCCBOE $277 million per year on the fatuous hope that the Board will do something useful to provide educations for the children of county residents.

    What we get is revolving door superintendents, sugar plum housing allowances, union pissing and moaning about “unfairness”, and executive trainers to train the incompetent executives hired by the incompetent board.

    It’s all enough to make Joe DiSalvo wring his hands, which he seems to be doing non-stop.

    It’s hard to imagine things getting any worse.

    Maybe it’s time for some patented Obama “change”.

    Why not try putting the SCCBOE in charge of Obamacare, and put Kathleen Sibelius in charge of education county school children.

    There’s no way to go but up.