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The San Diego Union-Tribune

Surprises Not New To Superintendent

But San Ysidro Schools A Challenge For Torres

By Chris Moran

December 31, 2001
Copyright © 2001
The San Diego Union-Tribune. All Rights Reserved. 

SAN YSIDRO -- His first few weeks in San Ysidro as superintendent of schools haven't been the first time Jose M. Torres got a few surprises in a new town.

He left Puerto Rico 24 years ago to attend college in Maryland and maybe play football. But the friends he had arranged to stay with lived too far from campus. He had to find a closer school and quit football.

When he came West last year to take the No. 2 job at a San Jose school district, he chose to live in a lower-rent San Jose neighborhood despite people's warnings that it was a high-crime area. Then one night he got home from work and saw police lights flashing on his block. Torres said he made up his mind to move when an officer told him, "If I had teen-agers, I wouldn't live here."

Torres, 41, moved about 400 miles south, taking his 15-year-old son, 14-year-old son, 12-year-old daughter and wife with him. He wanted a place where he could afford to buy a house -- and he wanted to be the superintendent. When he took the job in San Ysidro, he said he was attracted by the district's stability.

That was less than two months ago, and already he has seen teachers picketing to draw attention to labor strife, the launch of a recall campaign against three school board members and his own near firing. He emerged from the latest crisis with marching orders to get to know people, study the most important issues and figure out what to do about them. In other words, meet the people and fix the problems of a struggling district.

He got to know a lot of people Dec. 18. The board called a special meeting to consider firing Torres after discovering he did not have a California school administrator's credential, a state requirement that can be waived by the school district. It would have cost the board $187,500 -- 18 months' pay for the superintendent -- to fire him.

Fearing that their new schools chief would be forced out, the community mounted a mutiny at a public hearing preceding the board's closed session. They threatened board members with recall and wondered aloud whether the state needed to take over their schools.

Speakers pleaded with the board to keep Torres, and as board members headed into closed session, people chanted: "Doc-tor Tor- res! Doc-tor Tor-res!"

He kept his job, but he kept the challenges, too.

At a Dec. 20 board meeting, he was told it was his duty to mend fences with board members.

Then they told him to boost test scores, and fast. San Ysidro's state rankings based on test scores are among the lowest in the county. The state-mandated SAT 9 tests start again in about three months.

Torres said one way to raise scores is to give students more practice in taking tests.

He will need the teachers' help on that -- and the teachers aren't happy. Torres inherited an 18-month-old impasse with the teachers union.

"Dr. Torres is not going to be able to do much until the labor dispute is settled, because it weighs on everybody's mind and there isn't much happening after duty day," said teachers union co- president Pedro Lopez.

That is, teachers aren't attending committee meetings or participating much in after-school programs, he said.

On the other hand, some observers said, Torres got in hot water with the board because he was perceived as being too cozy with the unions.

"When we had the meetings, he started talking about making promises to the teachers," board member Juan Trujillo said. "Now he knows."

Trujillo counts himself as a supporter of Torres.

The board took heated criticism from the public Dec. 18. All five members have served at least five years, and they have never had such an open conflict with the previous two superintendents.

Already, Torres and the board have had one retreat in Coronado to talk about how to get along. They plan to do it again in February.

The good wishes Torres received during the public hearing showed some good will, but the tone in some of the speakers' attacks on the board and the retorts of the board president revealed tensions.

"I think everyone needs to learn to be more civil," Torres said.

He said things were different in Maryland, where he was an administrator for Department of Defense schools for five years before moving to San Jose. Inside the Beltway it was taken for granted that at least outward appearances would take on a tone of civility. Speakers used the phrases "Mr. President" and "the gentleman from Arkansas," he said.

"I think we can have debates that are focused on the issue, not on the person," Torres said. "I hope to have a teaching role in helping all of us to not necessarily get along, but get along while we're having a dogfight."

The district's mission is getting past the chronic low scores at San Ysidro schools, including those of the three-quarters of San Ysidro's 5,000 kindergarten-through-eighth-graders in seven schools who are not English speakers.

That's a challenge, but not an excuse, acknowledged board Vice President Yolanda Hernandez. The SAT 9 tests are in English, but so are college entrance exams, so San Ysidro children need to be able to compete, regardless of what their first language is, Hernandez said.

Torres took the San Ysidro job because of this challenge, not in spite of it. He said he moved West to use his bilingual and bicultural skills. His own experience taught him how important education is for immigrants and other non-English-speaking people.

So far he's getting high marks for listening. He's described as friendly and open. He's so conscious of his newcomer status that he at first jokingly called himself "El Otro" -- the other -- to distinguish himself from a San Ysidro principal who is also named Jose Torres.

When board President Luis Figueroa announced after closed session Dec. 18 that Torres would stay, supporters mobbed Torres.

But the public support wasn't carte blanche to turn the district upside down with change, he said.

"They're not really supporting me whichever way I want to go," Torres said. "They're supporting having me here to test me to see if I can do it."

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