RSF School board begins process to find new superintendent

R. Roger Rowe School.
(Karen Billing)

The Rancho Santa Fe School District is now on the hunt for its next “talented and dynamic” leader. At a Sept. 1 meeting, the board officially accepted Superintendent Donna Tripi’s resignation and began the process to acquire a search firm to help the district find the right match.

Last month Tripi announced that she would resign at the end of her contract on June 30, 2023. An educator for over 30 years, Tripi has led the district since December 2018, coming to the Ranch from La Jolla where she was principal at La Jolla Elementary School for 19 years.

Tripi took over following the abrupt resignation of superintendent David Jaffe who was with the district for two years.

At the board’s meeting Stephanie Rogen, of Greenwich Leadership Partners, talked the board through what they can expect over the course of the next months as they search for the right match.

“I know that transition is a big event in a community and transition is something that we are seeing across the country,” Rogen said. “COVID has not been an easy period of time and the social, political and cultural context in the nation has actually accelerated transitions in superintendencies and presidencies across multiple industries.”

Rogen said these days superintendent tenures are much shorter—it is rare to see long-time leaders like former superintendent Lindy Delaney and the school’s namesake R. Roger Rowe who served for 37 years as superintendent.

“There are shorter tenures now, but we don’t want it to be too short,” Rogen said, noting the average superintendent will say it takes five years to make change in school systems. “It costs a lot of money to transition, it takes a lot of time, energy and resources and it can really undermine the healthy fabric of systems when leadership is changing too frequently.”

In the process to find a superintendent, Rogen said it will be important to listen to the community and be unified as a board about their expectations and values, and be honest about the tensions and frictions that exist in the district and within the board. Governance can be hard when the community is divided over polarizing issues but the board’s job is to bring everyone together rather than to represent different points of view, she said.

“If the board is fractured, the community becomes more fractured,” said Rogen. “In any school district, the biggest challenge is really having inspired, motivated and thriving faculty and staff who can put your children first. If you’re divided it really damages the culture of the people who actually do the work every day for your kids.”

She said the healthiest school districts have a trusting and productive partnership between the superintendent and the board and their research has shown that the average superintendent spends more than 60% of their time managing board member relationships, which is not ideal.

Trustee John Tree said, in his own assessment, he doesn’t think that the board is operating at a high level of cohesion and agreement right now. He said he would like to see the board do the work to improve and get to a common viewpoint, to become a “five-member hiring body” and attract the best candidates.

“We need to be able to articulate the things that Donna did do well and not throw those out and articulate where the gaps are that we are looking to close with the new candidate,” Tree said.

RSF School Board President Jee Manghani echoed the board and some community members’ comments about taking a thoughtful approach in their search and not rushing the decision.

“For all of us, kids come first,” Manghani said. “Providing the least amount of disruption as we go about this is really important to me.”

At the meeting, the board approved a request for proposals (RFP) for a superintendent search firm, with a deadline of Sept. 29 to apply. The board plans to interview the top choices in a public session.