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Wood 'excited' about possibilities in Clayton

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Dr. Santiago Wood has read the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' (SACS) report on Clayton County Public Schools, but he believes there is a lot of potential for the district, once the system deals with the issue of accreditation.

He sees students successfully competing on a national stage, and making gains in the classroom.

The Clayton County school board is currently looking for a "corrective" superintendent, someone who is experienced enough to lead the district as it tries to meet nine mandates from SACS by a Sept. 1 deadline, in order to retain its accreditation.

Wood, 59, the former superintendent of districts in Fresno and San Jose, Calif., is one of two candidates for the position.

"Quite frankly, I'm excited about the achievements of [Clayton County's] students," Wood said. "It shows there is good instruction going on in the schools ... We can't waste these intellectual resources because of the behavior of adults. If we want [students] to look at us as role models, we have to act like we're adults. What Clayton County needs is someone who has the ability, and the talent, to provide leadership."

What will he do for Clayton schools?

Wood said the SACS report is "one of the more damning reports" he has ever seen an accrediting body issue about a district.

He also believes the district has the ability to meet all of SACS' mandates by Sept. 1, because of some of the factors it has working in its favor. Wood said the positive aspects of the school system include being debt-free, with a "healthy reserve," and having high-quality school facilities.

Like Fresno, minorities make up the majority of students in Clayton County schools. In Fresno, however, Hispanic students were the largest ethnic group. African Americans make up the overwhelming majority (73.3 percent) of Clayton's pupils.

Clayton County is also similar to Fresno in the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches. Seventy-four percent of Clayton students are listed as "economically disadvantaged," according to the Georgia Department of Education. When he left the Fresno district in 2004, 76.6 percent of the system's pupils qualified for free and reduced lunches.

Wood wants to see the Advanced Placement (AP) courses strengthened by adding more classes. He also wants to see the district offer more SAT preparation programs, so students will be ready for the test. Other ideas for improving the quality of education in Clayton County include offering programs on the environment and globalism.

Wood says his main goal in Clayton would be to build a collaborative effort by school officials, state and local government officials, business leaders and community members to address the SACS report.

He said the district's priority should be conducting all of the audits requested by SACS. He believes the board should establish a fund, which would be controlled solely by the superintendent, to pay for the audits.

"I want to give the report its due diligence," Wood says. "It [the school system] needs to be fixed, but it has to be a very pronounced effort by all of the stakeholders. This is not going to be fixed overnight. These problems didn't occur overnight. They've been developing at least since 2002, so it's going to take some time to fix them."

He also says he will reach out to various groups and individuals, including the national and Georgia school board associations, Gov. Sonny Perdue, the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, teacher union leaders, supporters and even critics, to help the district overcome the SACS issue.

"I'm not too proud to ask for help," he says. "Only a fool with a lot of pride refuses to ask for help."

To that end, Wood says it will take him 18-24 months to address the district's problems and put long-term solutions in place. He is asking for a "baseline contract" worth $185,000, plus a car allowance and a "one-time housing fee."

He says he will not ask for a personal driver, nor will he seek the protection of a body guard, even though former Clayton County superintendent, Barbara Pulliam, received death threats, and Interim Superintendent Gloria Duncan has a body guard who escorts her to many events and appearances.

"A body guard in Clayton County? Come on ...," Wood says.

Who is Santiago Wood?

Wood, a native of Balboa, Panama, is fluent in English, Spanish and French. He has worked as both an educator, and in the private sector. He currently works as an international educational consultant and a licensed realtor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where several of his relatives live.

He has an associate's degree from Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif.; bachelor's, master's and Juris Doctor degrees from Armstrong University in Berkeley, Calif., an Ed.D. from the University of San Francisco, and a post-graduate certificate from Harvard University's Superintendent Summer Academy Program.

Wood was an educator for 32 years before resigning in 2004 from his position as the superintendent for the Fresno United School District. He led that district for nearly four years.

Larry Moore, the president of the Fresno Teacher's Association, remembers Wood as a "very dynamic speaker and a very charismatic person," who was "like a preacher in some ways." Moore added while Wood wasn't perfect, he did a decent job as Fresno's superintendent.

The teacher's association leader also said Wood had a good relationship with employee unions for most of his tenure in Fresno, saying most of the relationship was forged by the former superintendent's charisma.

"Personally, I liked him," Moore said. "Can the guy manage a large school system? Yes. He selects pretty good people to run things."

In Fresno, Wood oversaw an 85,000-student school system, which also served an additional 35,000 adult learners, according to the candidate's resume. There are more than 100 schools and charter schools run by the district.

The district's population was 55 percent Hispanic, while the remaining demographics broke down as 18.1 percent Asian (mainly students of Southeast Asian descent), 16 percent Caucasian, 11.7 percent African American, and 0.8 percent Native American.

English was not the primary language for 42 percent of the student population. There were more than 100 languages spoken in Fresno schools on any given day.

The district's academic performance did go up while Wood was superintendent.

The percentage of students meeting, or exceeding the math standards for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) moved up six percentage points from 2002 to 2004, according to reports from the California Department of Education. Similarly, the percentage of Fresno students who met the AYP standards for English/Language Arts climbed five percentage points during the same time period.

The Fresno district did not make AYP while Wood was the school chief.

Moore said Wood turned around a special education department in Fresno that was an under-funded "mess." The new superintendent brought in a new person to run the department, with marching orders to get the department on track. Wood says he pressured state legislators to provide more funding for students with disabilities.

From 2002 to 2004, the percentage of students meeting, or exceeding the AYP standards for math and English/Language Arts went up by a little more than 4 percentage points in each subject area.

But Wood also had problems in Fresno.

According to reports from the Fresno Bee, Wood's tenure as the school chief was mired in controversy. In 2002, he tried to leave the district for a superintendent position in Florida, 17 months after he was hired to lead the system in Fresno. He was accused of talking more than he listened to people.

"When he's done talking, if you ask him a question, he'll filibuster," Moore said. "He'll talk for about 10 minutes before he answers your question. He's not a very good listener ... Underneath all of that, however, he was a good guy."

Staff cuts had to be made in order to reduce spending by $18 million in the budget for the 2004-05 school year. As a result, elementary school music teachers, as well as some library staff and campus security employees had to be let go by the district. Wood says it was not an easy decision to make, but it was necessary, because "there was not enough money to go around."

He had few friends in Fresno's city hall, the local business community, and ultimately the Fresno Unified School District's board of education by the time he resigned in 2004.

The board voted 6-1 during a more-than-six-hour executive session to accept Wood's resignation on July 1, 2004.

"The board spent considerable time listening to community concerns and discussing district leadership issues," said then board president, Patricia Barr, when the board came out of executive session that night, according to the minutes from the meeting. "With much thought and care for the best interests of the district, the board has determined that a change in leadership is necessary."

Fresno board of education member, Manuel Nunez, declined to answer questions regarding Wood on Wednesday, citing an agreement board members and the former superintendent reached in 2004. Per the agreement, he said, board members aren't allowed to speak negatively about Wood's job performance in Fresno.

"In [keeping] with that agreement, the only positive statement I can make is that he always dressed well," said Nunez in an e-mail.

The Fresno Bee also reported that Wood was given a $500,000 severance package, which included $289,753 for 18 months of salary and vacation pay, as well as five years of health benefits and $131,000, which went into the state retirement system for teachers. Wood says he will lose his health benefits from Fresno, however, if he becomes the corrective superintendent for Clayton County.

"It [the situation in Fresno] was a political, chaotic cauldron, but I kept my focus on the children," Wood says. "I'm not one to back down from a challenge, but I did not want to continue sparring with a split board ... Dr. Santiago Wood came in on his own terms, and Dr. Santiago Wood left on his own terms. I believe I left with my reputation intact ...

"It was not healthy for me to stay and fight, though. It was not healthy for the district. It was not healthy for the students."

Before Wood ran the Fresno district, he was the school chief for the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District in San Jose, Calif., from 1996 to 2000. Shortly after he took over at Alum Rock, Wood reorganized the system's administrative staff in an attempt to bring stability to the district.

His more than $16,000 pay raise in 1998 caused discontent among teachers, who were in the middle of lengthy negotiations for a 7 percent pay raise, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

In January 1999, 22 of 31 teachers at one elementary school called in sick to protest Wood's raise. In early June of the same year, the negotiations were still going on, and nearly 200 teachers went on strike for one day as the 1998-1999 school year was coming to a close.

Wood held various administrative positions in the West Contra Costa Unified School District from 1988 to 1996. From 1977 to 1988, he worked his way up the ranks at Vista Community College in Berkeley, starting out as an assistant dean of instruction, and eventually becoming the college's president.

His resume also lists teaching stops with the United State Navy's Naval Sea Cadet Reserve Program, a leadership academy in Burlingame, Calif., California State University-Fresno (Fresno State), the University of San Francisco, and the Oakland (Calif.) School District.