There is a scene in the movie “Vice” in which President George W. Bush is gathering information prior to the eventual war in Iraq. In a key meeting, he is presented with competing versions of intelligence, one from the Secretary of State Colin Powell and George Tenet, the Director of the CIA, the other version from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Bush needed to decide what to do. Everyone in the room was looking at him for direction and after a few moments, he said, “We’re going with Tenet and the CIA.”


Vice is an excellent movie, both in style and substance. It’s so good that viewers are presented with the understanding that Bush’s decision relied less on the facts presented and more on the people who were presenting them.

Up to that meeting, Rumsfeld was not presented in a particularly good light. Powell’s reputation, on the other hand, was stellar.

This anecdote is not about the war and whether it was right or wrong, it is about leadership.

Good leaders have several common traits, the most important of which is honesty and integrity. This is not squishy – either you tell the truth all the time or you don’t. Rumsfeld lost that day because his reputation preceded him.

OBTW, withholding information that is important to another person or to other people so they can make an informed decision is the same as lying.

Once again: Withholding information that is important to another person or to other people so they can make an informed decision is the same as lying.

And finally: Withholding information that is important to another person or to other people so they can make an informed decision is the same as lying.

Good leaders inspire others to innovate and take chances. Good leaders insist on accountability in others and have no trouble getting it because they hold themselves accountable for everything.

Good leaders have a vision and are passionate about achieving it. I recall the artist Christo, whose colorful umbrellas, cloth gates, and curtains, have adorned vast expanses of prime real estate across the country. More than the art he created, Christo was admired for getting civic leaders – including the gaggle in New York City – to understand and embrace his vision.



In 2005, artist Christo erected 7,503 vinyl “gates’ along 23 miles in New York’s Central Park.

Good leadership is essential to any enterprise or project. The district’s Human Relations Task Force has sputtered because of a lack of leadership. From the beginning, someone in the district should have told the task force members of his or her vision. He or she should have set a high bar, made the goals clear, and provided the resources to make it happen. And early on, a timeline should have been established to help create a sense of urgency.

The “red cup” video, which was the impetus for the task force, was exposed in March. It was not until last week, almost three months later, that the task force finally got around to the task at hand, no pun intended. At that meeting, we were given a deadline of late July to finish our work.

So why didn’t we get a deadline early on so that we could accelerate the pace of our work? Because we did not and do not have the necessary leadership from the superintendent.

But that’s nothing new. We didn’t have his leadership when we needed it for the Mariners Gold Ribbon application mess, the draining of the Estancia pool, the train wreck that was Swun Math, and so many more blunders that have occurred over the past seven years.

In fact, I cannot recall a single instance in which the superintendent has ever said, “I’m sorry,” or “This is my completely my responsibility,” or anything close to assuming responsibility for any of the major mistakes that have happened since 2012.

Oh, yeah, then there is that pesky “academic performance” stuff. The last statewide test scores showed that 40% of the students in our district failed to meet the state standards in English and – hold on – 49% failed to meet the state standards for math.

When these scores were announced last year, there was no outrage from the trustees and no acceptance of responsibility from the superintendent. What we got instead was spin – the cherry-picking of scores and the comparison of our test results to the statewide results, as if to say that we should be thrilled with these crummy results because they’re better than the state averages.

That’s how far we have fallen.

But wait, there’s more!

The 2018 scores showed gains of a little more than 1% in both English and math. Ah, you may be asking, “Why are you complaining when the numbers are going in the right direction?”

A fair question. Maybe it’s because those bad numbers are still really bad – shameful, actually – and also because in 2015, “only” 46% of all students failed to meet the state math standards. Yes, that is correct: The number of students in the district who failed to meet the state standard for math has increased from 46% in 2015 to 49% in 2018.

We’re going backward in math and backward in leadership.

I bring all this up because the superintendent’s contract is up for renewal on June 30. In the past, a majority of trustees have approved one-year contract extensions right about this time so that the initial four-year agreement keeps rolling over. It’s the N-MUSD’s version of an evergreen contract – one that automatically renews each year unless one of the parties objects.

The only year I can recall in which the contract was not renewed was in 2011 when ex-Super Jeff Hubbard was indicted up in Los Angeles. Hubbard was fired in 2012, one day after his conviction.

I have no hope that the trustees will not throw more salary at the super, perhaps even another of the infamous tax-deferred annuities as a bonus. They’ll do it because that’s what they’ve always done. And there may even be some trustees who think he’s doing a good job.

I don’t think he’s doing a good job, not when that math score is retreating and not when I look at the long list of costly mistakes that have been made on his watch. But even if I did, there is one thing I would never do: I would not vote for a contract extension.

Interesting things happen when you light a fire under someone. That fire could be an inspiration (a carrot), or it could be a demand for higher performance (a stick). Either option is sure to reveal the best in anyone’s ability to perform and lead.

But those qualities have to be apparent in someone from the start.

Steve Smith