West Contra Costa Unified superintendent hired after extended vacancy

After a nearly six-month search, the West Contra Costa Unified School District has hired a new superintendent.

Kenneth “Chris” Hurst, 60, who served as a superintendent at a school district in Washington state, will be West Contra Costa Unified’s first permanent Black superintendent.

The district’s board of trustees voted 5-0 Wednesday to hire Hurst. He will have a three-year contract — still pending final approval by the board — with a starting salary of $270,000 per year (and 2% increases each year).

Hurst succeeds outgoing Superintendent Matthew Duffy, who announced last year he would not seek re-appointment when his contract ended after the current school year. Duffy had served as superintendent since 2016, and his total compensation and benefits last year was about $365,000, according to Transparent California.

Duffy saw the district through a difficult financial stretch. Rumors circulated in late 2019 that the school board might consider firing Duffy, but multiple trustees publicly stood by the superintendent, EdSource reported at the time.

In a release, a district spokesman detailed Hurst’s accomplishments at Othello School District in Othello, Washington, including implementing “social-emotional learning standards,” which train students to manage their emotions and relationships.

Kenneth “Chris” Hurst (Courtesy of West Contra Costa Unified School District) 

The release also credits Hurst with boosting graduation rates by 16% and lowering absences by 33% at the Othello district, which has about 4,500 students.

West Contra Costa Unified enrolled about 28,000 students last school year, according to U.S. Department of Education data. The district has schools in Richmond, El Cerrito, San Pablo, Hercules, Pinole and other cities and communities in west Contra Costa County.

Board president Mister Phillips noted in an interview that West Contra Costa Unified is a mid-sized district relative to others in California, saying Hurst’s transition to the Bay Area is a natural progression.

“One of the things that I like about him is he’s not coming here to learn how to be a superintendent,” Phillips said. “He knows how to be a superintendent because he’s been doing the work. He’ll get better at his craft, but he is a sitting superintendent with a track record of success, not just where he currently is, but everywhere he’s gone, from what I can see.”

A lengthy search process involved 50 “listening sessions” with staff and families, and the district fielded over 6,000 comments from the community, according to the release.

Phillips declined to comment on what set Hurst apart from other applicants, citing a closed-session deliberation, but he did praise the hiring process as yielding a desirable outcome. It was a close decision, he added.

“I think we took the time we needed,” Phillips said. “This is an extremely important hire, and it was very important we took the time to do the process right. If it needed to be longer, it would have been. This is not a warm-body job.”

The district plans to reopen campuses for hybrid instruction on Monday after more than a year of distance learning. Students will return to campuses for “instructional hubs” for several hours a day.

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