With No Explanation, Marsden Takes Leave Of San Bernardino City Unified After 8 Years

Dale Marsden is due to check out from his post as San Bernardino City Unified School District Superintendent next Tuesday, March 31. He is doing so with no explanation as to what precipitated his leaving.
Marsden privately informed the district’s board members of his intended resignation effective at the end of this month at the board’s meeting on December 10, 2019, and made a public announcement the next day. Mystery has attended the circumstance since, as there were no overt signs of dissatisfaction with Marsden among the school board’s members.
Marsden’s departure in a certain respect replicated his equally abrupt leave-taking from the Victor Elementary School District in 2012, when he skipped out on that 11,000-student, 18-school district to take on the superintendent’s assignment with the San Bernardino City Unified School District. In another way the departures are dissimilar. The primary difference is that it 2012, it was known why Marsden made the move. His exit now is inexplicable, the actual reason for which is wrapped in secrecy. In 2012, Marsden stepped up into a district with nearly five times the number of students in the Victor Elementary School District from which he was departing, a move that placed him into a more prestigious and higher paying position. This time, there is no realistic demonstration that he will land anywhere beyond his statement in December that he intends “to serve our region in another capacity.”
Neither Marsden nor the school board has indulged questions about the actual reason he will no longer head the district, and whether this end to the relationship between Marsden and the district was one he chose on his own or whether the school board imposed his leaving on him.
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 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, in which capacity he was groomed to become superintendent, which became a reality the following year.
Marsden was well thought of in that school district and was credited with improvements in student test scores on state administered academic tests, an at-least partial product of the district’s emphasis on math and reading under his leadership. Marsden had acceded into something of a major personage in the Victor Valley by that point, and was perceived by many in the community and especially within the Victor Elementary School District as something of a High Desert institution, one who was to most assuredly remain with the district for at least another decade-and-a-half to guide it through the challenges it continues to face. He was a member in good standing of the Victorville Chamber of Commerce, having been elected president of that organization for 2012-13, but had not assumed that position when he was selected by San Bernardino City Unified as its new superintendent. When it turned out Marsden was merely ticket punching during his tenure in the Victor Valley to move into the superintendent’s position and then use that as a platform to launch himself into a more lucrative assignment elsewhere, that many or most of those in the community felt Marsden’s departure with a decided degree of poignancy and were disappointed went without saying. Some elements of the High Desert community characterized it as a betrayal.
In replacing Dr. Arturo Delgado as San Bernardino City Unified’s 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. Marsden came into a 54,000-student district in which just under 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.
Against this backdrop, Marsden made 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 the skills necessary to find work, while not necessarily aiming at preparing 100 percent of the district’s students to attend college.
In 2016, he was recognized by the Association of California School Administrators in conjunction with Pepperdine University as the “Superintendent of the Year,” an accolade attended by some grumbling from other educators, who noted Marsden was a Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology alum.
At the same time that Marsden was being lauded, the district was loathe to acknowledge 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.
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 included 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 deposited in a tax sheltered account for him, 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 was given a district-issued credit card for expenses incurred while at work, and entitled him to be reimbursed for all necessary business-related expenses he personally paid in the conducting of his duties. Thus, Marsden’s total annual compensation package stood at $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 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 annual 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 four years that were yet to come in 2017.
Marsden’s compensation compares favorably with many or most other superintendents overseeing like-sized or even larger school districts in the state.
For that reason, Marsden’s decision to leave more than a year prior to his contract’s expiration strikes many as a tell-tale indication that something else is at play.
Last year, just as the school year was about to get under way in earnest, the San Bernardino City Unified School District assistant superintendent of human resources, Perry Philip Wiseman, was arrested at his home in Highland on suspicion of possession and distribution of child pornography. Sheriff’s department investigators would subsequently note that the images Wiseman possessed appeared to have been downloaded from the internet and there was no evidence to indicate the illicit photos depicted students in the district. The district would seek to emphasize that in his capacity overseeing personnel issues Wiseman did not have any interaction with students. In this fashion, the district sought to distance itself from Wiseman’s criminal activity. He was, however, formally charged by the district attorney’s office on October 29, 2019, a little more than a month before Marsden privately told members of the board of his decision to leave during the closed session portion of its December 10 meeting. There has been no overt indication that Marsden’s resignation was related to the matter involving Wiseman.
Perhaps figuring into Marsden’s reason to retire is that San Bernardino County First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood had only recently before revealed that he would not seek reelection in 2020. Marsden’s wife, Laurie Marsden, serves as Lovingood’s chief of staff. With Lovingood’s tenure on the board of supervisors drawing to a close in December, Laurie Marsden’s employment with the county is likely to end at that time.
Marsden’s December 11, 2019 letter announcing his resignation reads like a cheerleading pep talk to the district, noting that “My family and I have served SBCUSD for nearly 8 years” and that “Two of my children have graduated from our schools.” The letter said that “Together as a community, we’ve weathered many challenges and experienced many successes.” Further, Marsden beamed, “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. Who could have imagined the incredible results we have achieved together for our community? “
Nowhere in the letter did Marsden explain why he was abandoning “the most incredible opportunity I could ever imagine.”
Marsden did not respond to repeated calls for an explanation as to why he was leaving the district, and no one was able to identify what “regional” education post Marsden is due to take up.
-Mark Gutglueck

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