Despite community and staff pleas, Ravenswood school board votes for external superintendent search

East Palo Alto district also facing budget cuts ahead

The Ravenswood City school board voted 3-1 on Thursday night, with Vice President Stephanie Fitch dissenting and President Tamara Sobomehin absent, to conduct an external search for the East Palo Alto district's next superintendent.

The vote came after district administrators, teachers, staff, parents and community members urged the board to look internally, which would likely result in the appointment of interim Superintendent Gina Sudaria. While they described the impact Sudaria has had on morale and reform — restoring trust and bringing new energy for the long-struggling district in a way longtime staff said they haven't experienced before — three trustees remained unconvinced.

Trustees Marielena Gaona-Mendoza, Ana Maria Pulido and Sharifa Wilson supported an external search in order to have a "fair and open and transparent process," Wilson said. She added that an internal search would be a "farce" because no other Ravenswood staff would apply.

"Internal search reads to many as a relationship-based appointment, not a merit-based appointment," Pulido said. "If anything, I think an external process would protect the interim superintendent should she be appointed."

Noting that hiring a superintendent is one of the most important responsibilities of the board, Gaona-Mendoza said, "I don't want to (do) anything that is not transparent."

Fitch made a motion to conduct an internal search that failed to get a second in support. She also moved to postpone the vote until all five board members could be present, but her colleagues did not support this. Sobomehin voiced a preference for an internal search at the board's last meeting.

"I for one don't want to continue being a board that's in disagreement with our community and our staff," Fitch said.

Sudaria was appointed this spring temporarily to lead the district after former superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff was forced to resign. Without the support of a board majority, her future remains uncertain.

"There needs to be a superintendent who is supported by a clear majority of the board ... because if they (aren't) then we're going to have a lot of problems," Wilson commented. "There will be some undermining going on."

Numerous speakers asked the board to back Sudaria as the best choice for Ravenswood's permanent superintendent. A group of administrative assistants who spoke together described her as "approachable, personable, dedicated, trustworthy." In a letter signed by more than 30 Brentwood Elementary School staff, they said she "brought hope to our district at a difficult time." Ravenswood Middle School Principal Amanda Kemp read a letter from her teachers and staff that said they feel "as if they have a voice again."

Solomon Hill, Ravenswood's director of technology, said he's purposefully not spoken publicly in support or against district leadership in his 18 years in the job.

"I realized tonight that I'd be remiss if I didn't speak up on behalf of Gina," he told the board. "I've known her 18 years. I saw her as a teacher. I saw her as a vice principal and a principal. ... At each step she was really uniquely qualified because she rose up through the ranks, she spent time in each (level), she has love for this community and is committed to this community and brought with her knowledge of the things that were good and bad each step of the way."

The question of how the district will pay for a wider, more costly superintendent search remains unanswered. The Ravenswood Education Foundation covered the total cost of the most recent search in 2013 ($22,000) with donations. But at least one major funder, the Palo Alto-based Peery Foundation, has publicly said it won't support an external search at this time. The foundation announced earlier this month a $3.5 million donation to the Ravenswood Middle School, made in part because of Sudaria's leadership.

Jenna Wachtel Pronovost, executive director of the Ravenswood Education Foundation, told the board that the organization has received nearly $5 million new donations from funders who have "observed the positive momentum and meaningful shifts in practice that have already occurred under this current leadership.

"The question around district leadership is top of mind for our donors as they know how much it impacts the daily experience of teachers and students. With a strong, well-respected and well-supported leader confirmed, I have no doubt that the $5 million could be just the beginning," she said.

The board will next have to decide the scope of its search, such as state versus nationwide, and whether to hire a consultant to manage the process.

Budget cuts loom for Ravenswood

Community concerns about the cost of a more extensive superintendent search were underscored by a presentation earlier in the board meeting about major budget cuts the district will have to make to stay solvent in the coming years.

Jim Lianides, the former superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District who is now serving as Ravenswood's interim chief business official, said in a presentation that he discovered $1 million in additional expenses that were not properly accounted for in the budget the board adopted in June.

There were more than $2 million in expenditures that weren't in the budget — including payroll being short by $300,000. Salaries and benefits, maintenance supplies, internet costs, county office special education services and non-public school placement costs were also underfunded while professional development and noon aides were "significantly overfunded," according to Lianides' presentation.

He also found about $1 million worth of expenses in the budget that "made no sense" and shouldn't have been included. That offset the additional expenses, resulting in the additional $1 million — which will roll over into future years, compounding the district's budget woes. As a district that relies heavily on state funding tied to student attendance, declining enrollment is forcing a financial reckoning for Ravenswood.

"As long as the district is declining (in enrollment), you're never done," Lianides told the board. "You can still be a very strong, viable, powerful school district getting great results for kids. You just have to look like one that is the size of the students that you serve."

He presented three scenarios for budget cuts, ranging from $500,000 to $2 million in the next two years. All three options require drawing down on $4 million in "rainy day" redevelopment funds. And in all three scenarios, the budget is still not balanced in the 2022-23 year, Lianides said.

The board followed Sudaria's recommendation to look at how to cut $750,000 from next year's budget and $1.5 million the following year. Under that option, the district would have a deficit of about $450,000 next year and $1.8 million in the 2021-22 year, according to Lianides.

As part of the cuts, the board will be discussing the consolidation of one or possibly two schools. Sudaria will bring a list of proposed overall savings to the board's next meeting on Oct 24.

"We have to be aggressive at this point," Sudaria said.


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15 people like this
Posted by Concerned Teacher
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 12:48 pm

The three members of the Ravenswood City School Board who have voted to begin looking externally for a new superintendent need to have their heads examined. There is NO ONE more qualified for the position of Superintendent of Ravenswood City Schools than Gina Sudaria. She has made her career here in Ravenswood and she has gained experience at every level of education from the classroom to the administration offices, of which she has held many. She knows this community and loves this community like NO ONE from the outside would ever be able to. The shift in morale of the faculty is observable and undeniable, yet these three board members seem to be blind to the progress that has already been made since Ms. Sudaria has taken the helm. The real question here is not about "transparency" as they claim, it is about control and egos. Remember, people, these board members are elected to represent your voices and if they are not doing so, vote them out!

13 people like this
Posted by Concerned Teacher
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 1:16 pm

The sad truth of the matter is if Gina Sudaria is not made the Superintendent of Ravenswood City School District, a district that she has been part of for 2 decades, some other school district out there will benefit from her leadership. She will not have to wait long for the offers to come streaming in! The only correct thing to do in this situation is to make Gina Sudaria the permanent Superintendent so that Ravenswood can continue to "right the ship."

16 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 1:48 pm

Gina is a good person, but don't oversell her. Until a few months ago she was an upper middle level administrator in our small, low-performing, rapidly shrinking district. She's served in a number of roles in Ravenswood, but there are no big results to point to. She may be the best person for the job - there may not be many applicants! - but it hard to say that unless you see what's out there.

She may get other job offers if she applies, it's true - though on the other hand, recall that she wasn't even the first choice to temporarily take over Gloria's place. So we'll see. In the meantime, no need to set unrealistic expectations - let her do her job and hopefully there will be some results to look at.

16 people like this
Posted by Ivan Temes
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 1:53 pm

As someone who has worked with youth in East Palo Alto for many years--and also the author of 'Care You Have to Power'-- my initial reaction based on the meeting last night was that the three Board members--Pulido, Wilson and Gaona-Mendoza--who come from the ills of the former regime might be advised to leave their positions to those who are dedicated to the progress the district needs NOW. Nothing personal other than those who impede progress are not really part of a cohesive team. Ms. Fitch made a valiant effort to support the district in moving forward and was not supported.
This is a turnaround situation and Gina Sedaria--in a short time-frame--has ALREADY accomplished what could be considered a miracle. Care and Trust--which have been missing for a long time--in terms of leadership have become evident in the district. Never have I heard SO MANY people from all venues in the district--parents, teachers, principals, administrators and others speak so passionately about the forward progress already being made. As one speaker said, many others will rally to the cause of benefiting our children in such a positive way. Gina provides the listening, community-orientation and leadership that will move the district forward in its efforts to benefit the children in the most positive way. Noone from outside could come even close. The expectation is also that those who have left the district will be motivated to bring their children back to an environment that truly cares.

11 people like this
Posted by Popular
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 1:55 pm

One of the board members said she is popular. The question is do we need a popular super or a experienced one

14 people like this
Posted by FormerColleague
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 5:25 pm

Was part of an HR professionals group with Gina. Extraordinarily inept, inexperienced and uninformed. Really out of her depth. No other District would grant her an interview for even an Assistant Superintendent position. She only looks good by comparison with a Gloria.Ravenswood deserves a real quality leader. Hope one applies.

10 people like this
Posted by concerned teacher
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 6:08 pm

This movement is falling on deaf ears, Pulido, Wilson, and Gaona-Mendoza are not listening. I was on the RTA committee for interviews for prospective board members when Pulido, who was up for reelection, came before the teachers to convince us that her spots were not really spots (think leopard, but more like a snake). I cannot fathom what the resistance is to hiring Gina, other than ego or ineptitude. This is the thing, those board members are playing with fire. They are not acting on the best interest of the students, they are acting on self-serving motives. The majority of my colleagues are committed to Ravenswood because of a strong ethical commitment to social justice. This whole thing can unravel and will unravel if we are not wise. The majority of us are hanging on by a thread because we dare to hope, but know this; if Gina Sudaria is not here to lead us, and things go south, you can blame Pulido, Wilson, & Gaona-Mendoza.

13 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 6:14 pm

@concerned teacher, to say that Ravenswood might fall apart if the staff doesn't get their way is inappropriate on a couple of levels. First it comes across as a threat, which will probably increase the board's resistance to Gina. Second, looking at Ravenswood student performance and community participation, it has already fallen apart in a way few other districts ever have. The question is who will pick up the pieces.

12 people like this
Posted by Jesusita Rivera, a Teacher in RCSD
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 7:34 pm

Oh!!! Why do I even bother with those negative comments from faceless people...too cowardly to put their name to their face. Lol. All I have to say is EVERYONE has haters and the highly qualified Gina Sudaria, is no exception. Yea, she’s popular...popular because she is the real deal. Popular amongst the people who truly have the number one customer, the students, at heart. Popular because again, she is highly qualified. Lol!! To the person who posted under “former colleague” To think that a supposed former faceless colleague is calling her inept....faceless person, you have no credibility hiding behind meaningless words. You are no longer at the district and I am glad of it. We only need high quality people and clearly you didn’t fit the bill because you’re no longer here.....but Mrs. Sudaria is.

Haters are going to hate. What else are they going to do? I’m not worried about you.

#oneravenswood #sudariathesup let’s keep on stepping on!

12 people like this
Posted by Amazing Team
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 8:37 pm

@Parent - to answer your comment
"though on the other hand, recall that she wasn't even the first choice to temporarily take over Gloria's place."

The first offer went to the Assistant Sup (the next highest ranking person). She declined stating "This e-mail is to officially inform you that I am respectfully declining your offer to take on the superintendent’s day to today duties and responsibilities. As a member of the Superintendent’s cabinet, I can speak for all of us when I state that the District’s management team, both cabinet and director level, are currently working 12+ hour days and cannot absorb additional responsibilities. I thank you for your consideration, and you have my commitment that I will continue to serve Ravenswood in my current capacity to the best of my abilities."

The next person in line was Gina who graciously stepped up for our children and assumed the new responsibilities. She is absolutely moving Ravenswood forward in a way that was not possible under prior working conditions. That wasn't about first or second choice it was about the hierarchy of the job titles.

I do not believe that you were in an HR course with Gina. I believe you know she took the course. People who are in class learning with others typically don't go out of their way to comment anonymously online and call their classmates 'inept'. Your comment isn't what is being said by her colleagues, at the San Mateo County Office of Education or in surrounding districts.

Ravenswood HAS a real quality leader.

As for the 'popular' comments. Gina is a 'popular' LEADER. She is 'popular' because, as her teammates said, she is trustworthy, reliable, dedicated, committed, caring, responsive, humble and invested. This is not middle school ... bosses are not 'popular.' They are respected. Gina is respected.

13 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 9:21 pm

to all the people that have commented that Gina is the right candidate to be the next superintendent for Ravenswood School District please look back and see what she has done in regards as to what she did when she was in Human Resources [Portion removed.]
look at what she is done as soon as she was Interim superintendent, she gave everyone a Raise "did you get One
Jesusita"? because everyone in admin. got a raise including Solomon that is why he spoke in favor of Gina and he has not spoken in favor of anyone in 18 years." please lets focus and move forward on finding the right superintendent. no hard feelings Jesusita.and Pulido has made mistakes in the past but right now Pulido,Gaona and Wilson are on the right track. thank you,

6 people like this
Posted by Amazing Team
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2019 at 9:48 pm

Teachers and classified staff got a much-deserved raise for last year and this year. Admin specifically did not get a raise due to the tight budget.

358 people have already signed a petition to support Gina in this role. (Web Link).

The individual you named is most definitely not alone in her support.

10 people like this
Posted by Jesusita Rivera, RCSD Teacher
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 12, 2019 at 4:52 am

Yes, I did get a raise. And, from my knowledge, people that I know who got cut, needed to get cut. Those are facts. They simply weren’t doing their job. I wish they would get over themselves. Pulido, Wilson, and Gaona have got it wrong. But that’s ok because Mrs. Sudaria will continue to prove how awesome she is. So, I, Jesusita Rivera, Teacher, who got a raise that Mrs. Sudaria made sure teachers were going to get (to answer your question) SUPPORT, Gina Sudaria as Superintendent. I will continue to do so. Gladly.

6 people like this
Posted by Ivan Temes
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 12, 2019 at 12:25 pm

Based on the anonymous comment from an alleged HR person I have to comment again. Comments like that without a name attached should not be allowed.
As a former national customer director I would point at this person and say that HR people are often the last ones who recognize what true leadership looks like. If we are gonna be backstabbing don’t be anonymous.
Gina is an awesome leader and educator.

4 people like this
Posted by EPA Board
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 12, 2019 at 4:56 pm

Gee whiz. Those big rich districts look outside for their superintendents. If we look outside too we'll be just like them.

6 people like this
Posted by Concerned Community Member
a resident of another community
on Oct 15, 2019 at 7:02 am

As a retired professional educator (teacher and administrator) with more than 35 years experience, a superintendent search is especially important when the board is not cohesive and focused. based upon previous reports in the Palo Alto Weekly, this board does not appear to be cohesive. A search firm will assign a consultant to guide the board in its hiring of a qualified, experiences educational leader.

One measure of Ms, Sudaria's qualifications to serve as the permanent superintendent would be years of tenure in Ravenswood. In some ways, it can provide her an advantage over external candidates. At the same time, it is only one among a set of criteria a search consultant will establish with the board as it screens candidates.

Ms. Sudaria and her current supporters should welcome a search. Should she emerge as the final candidate, it will be an important validation of her skills and experience. It will be an indication of the Board's trust in her ability to move the district forward. As a leader, Ms. Sudaria should want what is best for the district and trust she can emerge as the best qualified candidate.

In light of recent test scores posted on the website of the CA Department of Education, the board, community and staff should want the best for all of its students. The district needs a strong, instructional and operationally experienced leader to move the district forward.

Only the BEST for Ravenswood. Only the BEST.

2 people like this
Posted by Watching
a resident of another community
on Oct 15, 2019 at 7:45 am

There has been talk about declining enrollment? How about declining test scores?!!!! Which may have a direct impact on declining enrollment? There is a lot of talk about retaining Gina Sudaria. Talk here and at board meetings. When is the focus going to change to kids? And helping them achieve at higher levels? Ms. Sudaria might start the ball rolling on that topic and taking the attention off of her. Can you do that, Ms. Sudaria? It might serve both your interests and the District's - at the same time. Get the adults in the room to start focusing on the needs of children. That is leadership at its best!

3 people like this
Posted by Interesting
a resident of Woodside
on Oct 15, 2019 at 11:15 pm

Interestingly, going back through the Board Minutes for April 18 and after, it appears more than twenty-five certificated employees resigned from the district at the end of the 2018/2019 school year. This does not include resignations accepted in meetings prior to April 18.

Gina Sudaria assumed the position of acting/interim superintendent around April 1 - well before the April 18 Board meeting. If people were so satisfied with Gina's assuming the role, why did so many people leave after the time she was first appointed? Twenty-seven certificated employees represents a considerable portion of the total certificated staff.

Interesting. Very interesting.

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