San Bernardino, Calif., has had a tough year. Long before the shooting at the Inland Regional Center, the city became the poster child for crumbling communities, rivaling even Detroit as an example of how bad things can get.

Crime in San Bernardino rose with the dysfunction in city hall and the city filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012.

Now, they are trying to rebuild.

A couple of days ago, the Los Angeles Times featured a story on what went wrong in San Bernardino and what is being done to fix the city.

One of the key components of their plan: Fix the schools. How will they fix the schools? They hired Dale Marsden, a guy who has done it before, a turnaround expert. In the story, Marsden is described as “a former Air Force sergeant who had turned one of California’s poorest school systems, Victor Elementary School District in the high desert, into one of the state’s top performers.”

Gee, what a concept.

And what has happened since? “… San Bernardino graduation rates rose from 73.5% in 2012 to 79.9% in 2014, close to the state average of 80.8%. The graduation rates for Latinos is 80.2%, higher than the rest of the county. And African American graduation rates jumped 8.1 percentage points, according to the district.”

Here’s the link to the Times story:

This is not rocket surgery. Costa Mesa has schools that are failing. I know that some people cringe at the term, but it cannot be denied and there’s no point in tip-toeing around the subject: They are failing and have been failing for years (Teachers, if you think I’m laying the blame for this fiasco at your feet, please read past posts and my columns in the Daily Pilot. You’ll find that I am not.)

The difference between the San Bernardino City Unified School District, the city of Costa Mesa, and the N-MUSD is that the folks in San Bernardino understand the powerful connection between better schools and better cities. Oh, and there’s one more difference: They’re taking action. Not the type of education spaghetti-against-the-wall approach of the N-MUSD, but a long-term, comprehensive, strategic approach that is already showing improvement.

It starts with putting experienced people in key positions, not the nice people who are next in line for a promotion or the people who are put in positions because they will do what they are told, but people who know what works and what doesn’t.

But it’s hard for the folks at the N-MUSD to hire experienced turnaround experts because that would mean that they are admitting failure, and as we just learned from the John Caldecott case, admitting failure is not in the district’s DNA.

Superintendent Frederick Navarro has the power to hire experienced turnaround people. He can recommend them to the board and they will be rubber-stamped with no discussion. So why won’t he do the one thing that would make the biggest difference in academic performance in Costa Mesa’s schools? That’s an important question. While we’re waiting for the answer, kids in Costa Mesa’s schools continue to be promoted without the skills they need for the next grade levels, held hostage by the ignorance and/or egos of the adults who are supposed to be acting in their best interests.

Go ahead, Costa Mesa city council: Build all the new condos you want on the Westside of town. But until you start demanding corresponding academic improvements from your cousins on the school board, all you’re doing is putting lipstick on a pig.

Steve Smith