MORGAN HILL -- For the past year, Morgan Hill Unified School District has reeled from one controversy to another, from neighbors angry about a shuttered campus being reopened as a continuation school to bitter debates over opening two charter schools.
Now the board has stirred up more contention by elevating its former human relations chief to superintendent without seeking other candidates -- a process some believe was rushed and secret and further cemented divisions in the community.
Superintendent Steve Betando will be paid $212,500 -- $7,900 more than his predecessor -- and will receive a longer contract than the board originally had offered -- a move that riled critics even more.
Unclear that the board was poised to hire Betando, fewer than two dozen parents spoke out when the seven-member board voted 6 to 1 last week to elevate Betando, who had served as interim head.
"He deals with every issue head-on," board President Don Moody said of Betando, who joined the Morgan Hill district a year ago as assistant superintendent of human resources. In midyear, the board tapped him to temporarily take over after Superintendent Wes Smith resigned to lead a statewide school administrators' group.
Betando, 53, a native of San Jose and a San Jose State graduate, said he's been impressed since joining Morgan Hill. "I see the district as being a model in public education," said Betando, who previously worked in San Jose's Franklin-McKinley School District, two Central Valley districts and Fremont Unified. "The progressive, cooperative effort between the board, management, all facets of the community, and labor is very unique."
The board was so satisfied with Betando's performance when he served as interim superintendent that it decided in closed session last fall to not seek other candidates. "Last time we did a search, we were criticized because we didn't promote from within," Moody said.
"We're very angry," said Armando Benavidez, one of several parents who asked for a wider search and community consultation. "How can you find the best candidate if you don't do a search?"
Parent David Gerard said "people felt insulted" that the board left parents out of the decision not to seek other candidates, especially when Betando had six months left in his interim contract.
Moody said he met with unions and top administrators about whether the board should look for others for the top job. "We felt we had someone who was qualified," he said.
The sole trustee dissenting, Rick Badillo, chided the board for not following its own superintendent-selection policies. "When we forego the process," he said, "it undermines the credibility of the elected officials."
Fueling the debate is some people's belief that education in Morgan Hill, a community that prides itself on its schools, has slipped. "I want to see some improvement," said Stefen Boyd, the father of six children.
Nearly all of Morgan Hill's 14 schools rank in the bottom third, including six schools landing in the bottom tenth, when its state test scores are compared with schools with similar resources and demographics.
The showing is worse among Latino students, who make up half the district's approximately 9,200 students and are a steadily growing percentage. Among English learners, three Morgan Hill schools rank among the lowest scoring elementary schools in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties on the state's Academic Performance Index. Among low-income students, the district's eighth-graders' algebra proficiency is 16 percent, the fourth-lowest in 33 districts in two counties.
"The status quo is not good enough," trustee Badillo said.
Moody insists the district is serving all its students' needs, pointing to an assembly last week that honored middle-schoolers, many of them Latino.
He also noted that the district has had harmony with labor under Betando, whom teacher's union President Theresa Sage lauded as collaborative. The union won a 2 percent raise on the salary schedule, plus an additional 1 percent one-time raise this school year.
Some see Betando's hiring as reward for leading an aggressive and successful charge against two groups seeking to open charter schools in the district.
But Betando said that he's not opposed to charters, nor innovation. He noted that the district offers parents choice in a music academy, a Spanish-immersion program and is and planning two more "focus academies."
He says he's open to hearing individual parents, although that intention doesn't seem to translate to public perception.
"For us Latino parents," said mother Delia Gomez about the district, "we want them not to ignore us."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
Name: Steve Betando
Education: Bachelor's degree, San Jose State; master's degree, Cal State Stanislaus
Previous experience: teacher in Franklin-McKinley (San Jose), teacher and administrator Salida Union and Stanislaus Union (Stanislaus County), Fremont Unified; human resources administrator and interim superintendent in Morgan Hill Unified
Salary: $212,500, with 3 percent increase every July 1 with a satisfactory review, plus maximum $9,000 in health and welfare benefits and $650 monthly for in-district travel
Contract term: 4 years