Gilroy schools chief on hot seat

Almost fired: Four trustees indicate they have lost confidence in Alvarez, although he survived by a 4-3 vote.

Gilroy schools Superintendent David Alvarez, hired just over a year ago, narrowly missed being fired for alleged lackluster performance and trying to give himself a $12,000 pay hike.

But a majority of the Gilroy Unified School District Board of Trustees — after keeping quiet about their concerns for months then refusing in July after a closed-door evaluation to grant him the customary contract extension — made it clear at a tumultuous meeting Thursday that Alvarez, who earns nearly $102,000 per year, has lost their confidence and trust, even as he was retained by a 4-3 vote.

Alvarez critic Jane Howard, who provided the swing vote that retained him, said later that while she still has serious problem with him and wants him closely watched by a consultant, she thought he deserved a second chance.

“At this point he needs to be micromanaged….I will hold his feet to the fire,” she vowed after the meeting.

Board critics cited as reasons for wanting Alvarez out: repeated failure to provide key financial information needed during teacher negotiations; failure to meet agreed-upon deadlines for goals set following his evaluation; attempting (and failing) to get board approval of a $12,000 “longevity” pay increase, typically given only after years of service; and arranging for his daughter to get summer work with a firm doing consulting work for the district.

Alvarez has insisted he did nothing wrong and has worked hard. “I have to rise above this and look at the best interests of this school district and its students,” he said after the vote. Yet he said he was pleased with the outcome and will build “bridges” of cooperation with board members who were willing to buy out his contract, which runs through June 2000, for nearly $100,000.

“There are very few people in this district who work harder than I do; I have to work collaboratively with the board. My job is to do that and I am ready to do that,” Alvarez said.

Avid supporters on the board and in the community have called the criticism trivial or inaccurate — indeed, some chanted “recall” at the board members who appeared poised to fire the man.

They see Alvarez, at best, as a man of vision who cares about students, parents, staffers and the community — and at worse, a guy who walked into a bad situation and has not been given enough time to fix things.

The bottom line for those who spoke in support of keeping him — the majority of whom were administrators hired or promoted by Alvarez — was that firing the superintendent would create an instability in the district that would be harmful to students.

Still, with four seats on the board on the ballot in Tuesday’s election, the meeting, which Alvarez opened to the public, exposed bitter differences among trustees over the superintendent’s performance, what standards he should be held to and just how long the district must wait until he shows results.

And that could spell continued leadership problems for the 9,000-student school system even after the election.

Two of Alvarez’s staunch supporters, M.A. Bowe and Richard Rodriguez, are up for re-election. Another, Kim Merrill, is not seeking re-election. Nor is Alvarez’s most ardent critic, Gary Sanchez.

This all comes at a time when the Gilroy district is trying to resurrect what some think is a moribund strategic plan, developed over the course of many months by the community, designed to improve all aspects of the district. It also comes at a time when the district faces tough decisions on school construction, educating non-English speakers in compliance with Proposition 227 — it’s author, Ron Unz, recently accused Gilroy of violating the new law — and just how to respond to a scathing management audit delivered several months ago, and which Alvarez initially refused to release to the Mercury News.

Many problems

That report identified, among a litany of other problems, understaffed departments, unqualified personnel in key positions, fiscal waste, low morale and pay, outmoded computer systems and a district with “too many uncoordinated priorities and ineffective or inefficient operations.”

Alvarez’s alleged failure to quickly address some issues raised by the audit also angered some board members, including Sanchez, who initiated the move to oust him.

Right now, the district has been turned upside down by the Alvarez matter, and the atmosphere is very different from last July, when expectations were high after Alvarez was hired, unanimously, by the same board that was one vote away from firing him last week.

In a district seen by many parents, teachers and administrators as hamstrung and drifting as a result of a steady stream of key turnovers at the central office since 1996 — including the departure after 12 years of former Superintendent Kenneth Noonan in early 1997 — it was hoped Alvarez would bring stability and get test scores up. They have lagged behind state and national averages for years. It was also hoped he could smoothly guide the system into and through a period of growth.

Initially, there were promising signs. Consultants and architects, for example, were hired by Alvarez to plan new schools. But that process now has gone way over the allocated funding with little to show for it, according to some board members.

Board confidence was undermined by the fallout from the district’s plan for Proposition 227 compliance. Some board members have complained they may have been mislead by Alvarez and staff members to adopt a policy critics say violates the new law.

The situation was not helped this week when the board on Tuesday approved a three-month leave of absence, for health reasons, for Alvarez’s recently hired assistant superintendent for business operations. As the district’s chief financial officer, Ralph Hatland has been in charge of teacher salary negotiations, which have dragged on to the point that union representatives have hinted at filing complaints.

Didn’t provide data

But the failure of Alvarez to provide fiscal data has perhaps most infuriated his critics on the board.

“The superintendent has repeatedly failed or refused to provide information regarding financial outflows,” school board member Mark Good said, noting that Alvarez has blamed those under him for the problems. “For the past several months, I have been unable to make decisions regarding financial matters without this information.”

Good and colleagues Sanchez and Patricia Blomquist provided the three votes to oust Alvarez.

“This board has refused to hold (Alvarez) accountable. I can only hope that the district doesn’t go bankrupt,” Good added.

At 45, Alvarez is a former San Bernardino County Probation Department counselor with 20 years in education. Since landing his first schools chief job a decade ago, he has racked up a history of leaving superintendencies before his contract expires, including his dismissal in 1989 from the top job in the Coachella Valley Unified School District.

That Riverside County district was so mired in fiscal mismanagement at the time that an investigation found it had all but bilked the state out of more than $400,000 and still needed a $7.5 million state bailout to stay afloat.

4 jobs since ’89

In all, Alvarez has served as superintendent in four districts, including Gilroy, since 1989. Before Gilroy, he served about a year in Chino before a politically divided school board terminated his employment with 18 months remaining on his $100,000-per-year contract. He received a buyout worth about $150,000, he said.

Before that, he lead the Lancaster district for five years, earning some praise for innovation but departing for Chino, and a higher salary, before his contract ended.

Gilroy school board members said they visited Lancaster and Chino before hiring Alvarez, but did not go to Coachella.

Alvarez had been an assistant superintendent in Coachella for a year — and before that a middle school principal — before being tapped for his first superintendency, according to his r?sum? on file with the Gilroy district.

Alvarez said that he inherited a bad situation in Coachella Valley and though he made “valiant” efforts to correct matters by bringing in new auditors and consultants, was unable to stem the financial slide. In the end, he said, he was dismissed by a newly elected board that wanted to hire its own superintendent.

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