Non-Educator Becomes New Superintendent of Burbank Schools

No experience required.

This phrase would attract a young person who has never held down a job.

It shouldn’t be the standard a school district considers when searching for a superintendent of schools.

Yet that is exactly what occurred in Burbank last week when the school board awarded a three-year contract to Matt Hill, currently the Chief Strategy Officer in LAUSD.

The Burbank Unified School District is hiring a person who has never been a classroom teacher or school administrator.

Would doctors respect a medical director who had no experience working with patients?

Would attorneys buy into a law firm whose senior partner never tried a case in front of a judge?

Yet in education, it is not that rare to have non-educators run school districts. This is just another example of how educators are not viewed as the experts in their own field.

In Los Angeles, former Colorado Governor Roy Romer did have a somewhat successful stretch of five years as LAUSD superintendent. But then his successor, retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral David Brewer, barely lasted two years.

In addition to his lack of school experience, Hill’s tenure at LAUSD includes the infamous iPad and MiSiS debacles, the former a failed $1 billion effort to give each student an iPad, the latter a new computer system that never worked right whose costs are approaching $100 million.

So if it’s not job experience or accomplishments, what is it exactly about Hill that earned him a $241,000 salary, thousands more than current Supt. Jan Britz’s pay?

Interesting that when Britz took over in 2012, her initial salary was $185,000, $50,000 less than then outgoing superintendent Stan Carrizosa’s. At the time, the rationale from the Board was that she had never been a superintendent before while Carrizosa had. So, shouldn’t the same logic apply to Matt Hill? Or was it “okay” to pay her less money because she was a woman?

School board member Larry Applebaum acknowledges Hill’s “baggage,” but said that he is excited about how Hill has managed people since the district has a need in addressing “long-standing systemic problems.”

Applebaum was impressed with the knowledge Hill had of Burbank schools, calling him “an extraordinary man” who has been caught up in the “hysteria” of the Burbank Teachers Association’s criticisms.

He also spoke glowingly about Hill’s personal and communication skills, and after speaking with Hill, I can see why one would get that feeling. He comes across earnestly, saying all the right things.

Hill feels that the controversy over his hiring will “absolutely” subside once he takes over. He is aware of why some view his lack of credentials as a negative, but he knows well the quality of Burbank schools and is “optimistic” of the future. In fact, he is thinking of moving to the city and having his own children attend schools in the district.

More troublesome than Hill’s lack of credentials is the endemic turnover with Burbank’s superintendents.

During my 26 years in GUSD, I have known four superintendents. During that same time period, BUSD has had seven superintendents, five in the last six years.

One would think that with a smaller school district, 16,000 students in Burbank vs. 26,000 in Glendale, there would be more stability.

With such a checkered past of selecting superintendents, why was BUSD in such a rush to hire someone? One would think more time not less would be in order.

BTA President Lori Adams called the hiring of Hill as “a big surprise” and “scary” that they would hire a non-educator, adding that BTA was “not at all” involved in the hiring process. She wonders why the school board felt the need to rock the boat when recent meetings between the union and the district have been cordial.

Adams added that it would have been a “good idea to have the new board weigh in” on hiring the superintendent, referring to two newly elected members.

Applebaum said the reason why they did not wait until Steve Ferguson and Armond Aghakhanian were sworn in was because they lacked experience compared to that of outgoing members Ted Bunch and Dave Kemp. So, in this case experience mattered but in Hill’s it did not.

Now that the position has been filled, all stakeholders should allow Hill an opportunity to show what he can do. Time will tell whether he will be another Romer or another Brewer.

Applebaum said that “at the end of the day . . . we’ll turn out okay.” Let’s hope so for the kids’ sakes.

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