Ahead of Columbus City Schools’ “Day in the District,” NBC4 is profiling the three finalists for superintendent on May 8-10, 2023. Read about Angela Chapman and George “Eric” Thomas.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – When the finalists for Columbus City Schools superintendent descend on the district for a candidate town hall, one will travel further than the others – more than 2,000 miles – and leave behind the district he’s worked at for more than a decade.

Brian McDonald will trade the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains for the bank of the Scioto River on Thursday as one of three top contenders for the district’s superior administrative role. For most of his career, he has held various administrative positions at Pasadena Unified School District, in a city a ninth the size of Columbus and 10 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

The former elementary and middle school principal in the Houston Independent School District has worked his way up the administrative ladder at Pasadena Schools since 2011, becoming superintendent in 2014 and setting his sights on improving academic achievement across the district’s minority populations. 

Under McDonald’s guidance, Pasadena Schools received two federal grants through the Magnet Schools Assistance Program, including a $14.5 million grant in February. Through grant money, several magnet schools in the district have launched dual-language immersion programs and specialty course tracks in visual and performing arts, business and science.

After steering the district through the COVID-19 pandemic and an ongoing financial crisis, last year the district school board voted to continue McDonald’s tenure through 2026 – a year ahead of when his contract was set to expire.

Not everyone in the district was happy to see McDonald’s contract extended, however.

“Classroom and site defunding has been a trend under the leadership of Dr. McDonald over the last eight years, despite assurances and now-broken promises to the contrary,” testified Jonathan Gardner, then the president-elect of United Teachers of Pasadena, at a March 2022 school board meeting. “The sites and site staff – even principals – have continuously been shorted to pay for over-funded central admin.”

Pasadena teachers and parents had for years criticized McDonald’s salary in comparison to staff salaries, according to school board meeting minutes and videos. At $265,000, McDonald’s yearly earning handily surpasses the median income for superintendents – and, as critics testified, dwarfs the pay of Pasadena district staff.

When the board approved McDonald’s most recent contract extension in March 2022, several Pasadena teachers testified that they and others have repeatedly asked the school board and district administration for better pay, with some calling on McDonald to lower his own salary.

“While our current superintendent Dr. McDonald is making one of the highest salaries in comparison to the superintendents in other districts in the region, the teachers of this district have been earning one of the lowest paying salaries,” Mirian Meehan, a high school Spanish teacher in Pasadena, said.

McDonald did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Pasadena Schools did not return a request for comment.

Pasadena is far from the only district under fire for low salaries. Columbus City Schools’ first strike in nearly a half century came after months of failed contract negotiations that partially hinged on boosting staff pay. Columbus City Schools declined to comment.

The Los Angeles suburb’s salary woes are not unique to McDonald’s tenure, either. Johanna Moore, a high school teacher at Pasadena Schools, testified last March that her first time on the picket line was decades ago when her parents – both Pasadena teachers – were fighting for fair compensation.

Others – including school board members – speculated whether the board was rushing into a contract renewal, knowing that at least two members were not running for reelection. 

“My goal has always been to improve outcomes for students and families, especially those who have traditionally not been well-served by PUSD,” board member Kimberly Kenne said. “From that perspective, it is time for a new direction and new leadership in Pasadena Unified.”

The Pasadena board voted 4-3 to extend McDonald’s contract and grant him a paid sabbatical in June 2022 “after these two very arduous years that he’s been through.”

“I have not seen a better fit for this district than Dr. McDonald,” said President Elizabeth Pomeroy, noting McDonald’s “quality of heart” and dedication to academic success.