Mystery Over SBCUSD Superintendent’s Suspicious Mid-Contract Departure

By Mark Gutglueck
Mystery yet attends the abrupt departure of controversial San Bernardino City Unified School District Superintendent Dale Marsden, who announced his resignation at the district’s board of trustees meeting on December 10.
Publicly unknown at this point is whether Marsden’s departure was one he chose on his own or whether the school board imposed his leaving on him.
There were no overt signs of dissatisfaction with Marsden among the board’s members, more than seven years after he was hired to oversee what was then a 54,000 student district in 2012. Nonetheless, there were hints that something was amiss, and district officials have brought the curtain down on anything pertaining to Marsden and his performance.
Not yet forgotten is the harsh feeling that attended Marsden when he arrived in San Bernardino in 2012 as a result of his having up and left the Victor Elementary School District in the lurch to take the higher-paying position with the county’s largest district. A search for a new superintendent in San Bernardino had been ongoing for some time, since Arturo Delgado departed there to become the superintendent of Los Angeles County Schools in 2011. Elements of the High Desert community felt Marsden’s departure with a decided degree of poignancy, some characterizing it as a betrayal.
After serving in the U.S. Air Force for four years,  Marsden earned his bachelor’s degree from California State University San Bernardino in liberal studies with a minor in mathematics. In 1992, Marsden briefly taught at the experimental Orange County Department of Outdoor Science School and then taught at the public school level for six years, attending postgraduate classes at night to earn, first, a master’s degree in educational administration, and then a doctorate of education in educational leadership, administration, and policy from Pepperdine University. He used his master’s degree to move into a temporary teacher-in-charge position, meaning he filled in as principal during the actual principal’s absences.
He departed from classroom teaching assignments permanently when he hired on with the Victor Elementary School District as director of quality and development. In 2007 he was promoted to the position of deputy superintendent and was hired as superintendent the following year.
Marsden was well thought of in that school district and the community at large. He was credited with improvements in student test scores on state administered academic tests, despite more than 70 percent of the households in the district qualifying as economically challenged by federal standards. He transformed one of the district’s campuses into a leadership academy that maintained its emphasis on math and reading while simultaneously imparting business and governmental leadership skills to its pupils.
The 18-school Victor Elementary School District’s political leadership considered it a good investment to groom Marsden to become superintendent while he was yet in the capacities of the director of quality and development and then assistant superintendent. Marsden appeared to be living into that expectation. He held a leadership role among the Victor Valley’s superintendents in the county’s Alliance for Education, which is a division of the county schools’ Higher Education and Workforce Development Program. He was a member in good standing of the Victorville Chamber of Commerce, having been elected vice president of that organization. He had been chosen to be president of the chamber of commerce in 2012-13, but had not assumed that position when he was selected by San Bernardino City Unified as the new superintendent. To many in the Victor Valley and especially within the Victor Elementary School District, Marsden was seen as something of a High Desert institution. Almost universally, it was anticipated the faith in him demonstrated in the advancement of his educational administrative career at the district would result in his remaining with the district for at least another decade-and-a-half to guide it through the challenges it continues to face.
A significant number of the officials in the Victor Elementary School District grew to rue having staked so much on Marsden when it turned out he was merely ticket punching during his tenure there to move into the superintendent’s position and then use that as a platform to launch himself into a more lucrative assignment elsewhere. Marsden found the more impressive post he was seeking when he signed on as superintendent of the 44-elementary school, ten-middle school, seven-high school and three-special education school San Bernardino City Unified School District.
In the seven years he has been in San Bernardino, Marsden did at least some things right. He did an adequate job, most people acknowledge, in certain areas and a better-than-average one in others.
In replacing Dr. Arturo Delgado as superintendent in 2012, Marsden moved from a very nice home in Apple Valley where he was raising his four children with his wife, Laurie, and accepted the challenge of coming to San Bernardino, a community bearing the stigma of bankruptcy, crime and political corruption.
Statistically, San Bernardino, based on the incidence of serious crimes per capita, is California’s most dangerous city. It has one of the higher poverty rates and suffers from among the lowest academic achievement scores in the state. Right at 90 percent of its student population lives below the federally defined poverty level and most are eligible for a free lunch. About 2,800 of its students are homeless. and other rating agencies say the San Bernardino City Unified School District is performing below average in terms of test scores and student readiness for college. The district acknowledges that only 28.3 percent of its students met college course requirements. According to the California State Department of Education, 49 percent of students in San Bernardino are performing below state standards in math, 39 percent are not meeting standards in English language arts/literacy and 45 percent are testing below the standard level in reading.
Against this backdrop, Marsden managed to make some inroads.  Of those that manage to make it to the 12th Grade, 91 percent of the senior class in San Bernardino City Unified high schools graduate, surpassing the county, state and national average.
Marsden was praised for having put into place a community engagement strategy to deal with issues interfering with students’ ability to focus on their studies, and heading off behavioral and attitudinal problems, which was deemed at least partially successful in increasing the district’s graduation rates and achieving a 50 percent reduction in student suspensions and citations. He also championed a “career pathway” focus for students to instill in them with the skills necessary to find work.
In 2016, he was recognized by the Association of California School Administrators in conjunction with Pepperdine University as the “Superintendent of the Year.” That recognition was attended by some grumbling from other educators, who noted Marsden was a Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology alum.
An issue dogging Marsden has been criticism of his rate of pay and the rate of pay of other administrators and faculty members within the district.
Just before the onset of the school year in 2017, Marsden negotiated a four-year contract worth $1.2 million in base pay, consisting of an annual salary before benefits of $307,546. Calculation of his total compensation includes another $124,271.32 in yearly benefits, including contributions toward his pension plus $24,000 worth of annual life insurance deposited into a trust account, another $12,000 per year he receives that is deposited in a tax sheltered account, a $14,400 annual housing allowance and a $9,120 auto allowance. The contract provided him with 24 vacation days and 30 sick days per year and full lifetime medical and dental coverage for himself and his wife upon his retirement. Marsden has a district-issued credit card for expenses he incurs while at work and he is entitled to reimbursement for all necessary business-related expenses paid in the conduct of his duties. Thus, Marsden’s total annual compensation package is $432,817.32, making his four-year contract worth $1.7 million all told.
The San Bernardino City Unified School District’s student population has dropped from roughly 54,000 when he was hired in 2012 to somewhere between 49,000 and 50,000 at present. Despite that, Marsden’s rate of compensation has more than doubled since that time. In 2012, when he was an outsider negotiating to go to work for the district, he agreed to accept $185,212 in total pay/benefits. Upon becoming the head of the district, from which vantage he could exert control over all elements of the district’s function, including its human resources/personnel division and director, he was able to renew his contract in 2013 for $303,298 in total compensation; to $343,728 in 2014; to $385,414 in 2015; to $430,329 in 2016 and he locked in $432,817.32 over the next four years in 2017.
Marsden’s compensation compares favorably with many or most other superintendents overseeing like-sized or even larger school districts in the state.
Until her life was cut short by cancer earlier this year, Los  Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michele King, who managed the second largest school district in the nation and the largest in California with 734,000 students in 900 schools and 60,000 employees functioning on a $7.1 billion annual budget, was receiving total pay/benefits of $397,987 per year.
By comparison, Marsden oversees a district with a $650 million annual budget and 8,000 employees. San Bernardino City Unified is the tenth largest school district in the state.
San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cynthia Marten receives total annual compensation of $345,919 to carry out her assignment, educating 135,000 students in 231 schools.
A possible justification for the discrepancy in the pay provided to school superintendents is the issue of educating the socioeconomically disadvantaged or the impoverished.
Roughly 16 percent of Marten’s students in San Diego live below the poverty line.
In the Ontario-Montclair School District, with just 22,000 students, Superintendent James Hammond receives $516,573 per year. In that district, roughly 85 percent of the students come from households qualified as low income or very low income, such that they are eligible to receive a free lunch.  Hammond is one of the few superintendents in California more handsomely paid than Marsden.
In making such evaluations, strict correspondences do not apply and can be much like contrasting and comparing bananas and pineapples. Some comparisons are more apt than others. In the Riverside Unified School District, which has a student population roughly 86 percent that of the San Bernardino City Unified School District, and similar but less intensive socioeconomic factors inflicting its student body, Superintendent David Hansen oversees 53 schools that instruct 42,500 students. He receives an annual total compensation package of $328,453. According to the California Department of Education, the Riverside Unified School District significantly outperforms the San Bernardino City Unified School District, with 44 percent of its graduates meeting college course requirements.
Of note is that under Marsden, the district’s top echelon of employees – primarily administrators – are well-remunerated.
The San Bernardino City Unified School District has seven employees receiving over $200,000 and another 111 getting packages over $150,000. San Bernardino’s deputy superintendent, Harold Volkommer, totaled $299,949, and assistant superintendent Mary Christakos $253,194 in 2018.
A penetrating criticism of Marsden is that he operates a culture in which the level of pay provided to his administrators is considered to be as much of or more of a measure of the district’s success than its students’ academic performance.
Abruptly, on December 10, Marsden publicly announced his resignation, springing his decision, if his statements are to be credited as truth, on the school board on the same day, taking them as unawares as the rest of the San Bernardino community.
There were conflicting signals accompanying the announcement of his departure. Marsden seemed to suggest he had another position lined up, but that was contradicted by his refusal to specify what that position is.
In a letter to district employees dated December 11, he wrote,  “On Tuesday, December 10, I informed the San Bernardino City Unified School District Board of Trustees of my decision to resign my role as superintendent to serve our region in another capacity. My family and I have served SBCUSD for nearly 8 years. Two of my children have graduated from our schools. Together as a community, we’ve weathered many challenges and experienced many successes together. The board is committed to supporting a seamless transition of leadership to ensure our schools and community continues its trajectory toward excellence.
“Serving SBCUSD has been in response to a dear call on my and my family’s lives,” the letter continued. “It has been the most incredible opportunity I could ever imagine. The role of superintendent in a large urban school district requires a 24/7 sense of ‘being on point’ –something I have embraced, developed a stamina for and have most thoroughly enjoyed! Who could have imagined the incredible results we have achieved together for our community? For example, our graduation rate has grown over the last several years from 66.8 percent to 95.2 percent, more of our students are graduating college-ready than ever before, and we have developed over 50 career pathways and established a robust internship program with the County of San Bernardino to ensure our students are on a course for future success in the world of work. Through this transition and beyond, my family and I remain committed to San Bernardino and will always be your loudest cheerleaders as the race toward excellence continues. Though my future work will be different work, I will do my best to continue to blaze a trail for not just SBCUSD, but for this entire region toward the success for which it is capable.”
Nowhere in the letter did Marsden explain why he was abandoning “the most incredible opportunity I could ever imagine.”
Unstated, but ominously hanging over the circumstance was the suggestion that Marsden had been forced to resign.
The contract Marsden had forged with the district in 2017 did not expire until August 2021. Over that 20-month span from now until the elapsing of the contract, Marsden would have been paid $721,362.20.
Marsden did not respond to repeated calls for an explanation as to why he was leaving the district.
Efforts to reach his wife, Laurie Marsden, who serves as the chief of staff to First District Supervisor Robert Livingood, were unsuccessful. Lovingood is not seeking reelection next year, and Laurie Marsden’s tenure as chief of staff in San Bernardino County’s First Supervisorial District is likely to end in December 2020.
No one was able to identify what “regional” education post Marsden is due to take up, nor would anyone confirm that his hiring elsewhere is imminent.
San Bernardino City Unified School District communications officer Maria Garcia said she did not know what position Marsden had lined up. She said he would remain in place for a time while a search for his replacement is ongoing.
San Bernardino City Unified School District Board Member Danny Tillman told the Sentinel “He had the opportunity to do what he he wants to do.”
Asked if he was surprised or startled by Marsden’s announcement, Tillman sidestepped the question, saying, “I’ve been on the board for 25 years and I always expect our leaders to eventually go.”
Tillman seemed to be taking Marsden’s announcement in stride.
“We’ll do a search and try to find somebody who is qualified from the start,” he said. “This is a massive district. If it is long and drawn out, it could take three or four month. If we happen to find someone who is super-qualified and we’re able to make some arrangements, then it will be much sooner.”

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