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Meet the new boss: An interview with Chuck Young

It has been a tumultuous six months for the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

In May, a hostile workplace complaint was filed by a district staffer, since retired, against one school board trustee. Then in June, popular district Superintendent Louann Carlomagno resigned to take another post, citing grievances with the board.

In an effort to steady the ship, former longtime UCLA Chancellor Charles Young was lured by district officials to step in as interim district superintendent, giving trustees a bit of breathing room while they seek out a permanent superintendent to guide the future of Valley schools.

In this interview, “Chuck” Young, 85, describes what he considers to be the three prongs of his new role: running the district and making any changes he deems necessary; assisting with the search for a permanent superintendent; and helping to guide the school board toward better effectiveness going forward.

What would you have said if someone had told you a decade ago that you would one day be the superintendent of a small school district in Sonoma?

I would’ve said they were smoking something.

What do you see as your role as interim superintendent?

I will tell you what I told the people at the University of Florida when I went there as interim president (after having retired from UCLA): I’m not the interim president, I’m the president for an interim period. Therefore I have all the power and responsibility and authority of the president. Don’t try to pretend or think I’m not the boss – that I’m not going to be doing things.

I’m not just here to get Sonoma Valley’s school board working more effectively. I’ve found that there’s some things substantively in the district that I can perhaps talk about, modify, and help to try to improve.

I’ll be making changes. I would be afraid not to make changes if change is warranted.

You served on the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation’s board for more than five years. What did you take away from that experience?

The Ed Foundation didn’t just give the district money to spend. We gave them money for particular programs.

I have been heavily involved in what I thought SVEF should raise money for, like preschool for all; third grade reading levels; the transition into the middle schools; and freshman teams in high school. I’m very proud of all that we have achieved.

We worked in concert with the district. We said, “Would you like to do this? We would like to do something along these lines. Does it make sense to you? Would you do it if we gave you the money to do it?”

I also learned that it is difficult to determine how well an education program is succeeding and we are very serious now about figuring out the most effective ways to evaluate these programs.

What are some strengths of the district?

I’ve found a very strong and dedicated staff and faculty – who maybe need more help than they get, so they have time to consider other things. All of the people here in the district office, the principals with whom I’ve talked, are first-rate and dedicated. They have just bent over backward to welcome me, to help me learn.

I’m particularly impressed by the effect that we are getting from preschool education, as well as the summer literacy programs.

And one major strength of the district is its partnership with the private sector via the Ed Foundation.

What lies ahead for that relationship?

The relationship between the district and the Education Foundation was and is very strong. It should be even stronger now because I’m now on the other side of the equation. I still sit on the Ed Foundation board by virtue of my role as a superintendent.

I think, despite the fact that the district has to make budget cuts this year, we’re working hard to see that those cuts can be reduced and we’re seeing some positive developments in that regard.

What is one key area you are looking at now?

The differences that make it tougher for students in the Latino community to do well – it means we have to work hard to make sure that they succeed. If they succeed the other students are going to succeed because the whole process is going to be better.

I feel strongly that UCLA made its greatest strides academically, and in its reputation, during the period we became more diverse. It made education for all better.

Students were being educated in an environment which was like the world they were going to be living in. When we are doing affirmative action properly we are not doing it for them, we are doing it for all of us. Every student at UCLA came out a better lawyer, a better doctor, a better teacher, a better engineer in that environment than they would have without it.

That big area, which may end up involving a lot of little things, is something I’m going to work very hard on.

What’s the current tenor of the school board?

I have talked now extensively with every member of the board and we’ve focused our discussion on what the board is, what the board is supposed to do, what the board has been doing, the problems that have been created by the board getting involved in things that, in my opinion, they ought not to be doing… and them making it harder and more difficult for the district to do what it needs to do.

While it will not be easy I also think it can be done and can be done, I think, more quickly than I might have thought.

If we don’t do that – if I don’t succeed in that – I will have failed.

Given the recent headlines, what are the chances of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District attracting a top-notch permanent superintendent?

Not good right now. I’m going to advise that they not get into this now. Prospective candidates will have to be convinced that things have changed and that’s going to take a while. The board problems need to be fixed or they’re not going to find the person they ought to get.

I think by January, February, we should be working as a great board, and then I think people are going to be beating on the door to get in.

What’s on your calendar this week?

I’m meeting with some opponents of the proposed high school stadium today.

New and improved facilities, all together, make the schools better for the students and for the alumni, for the neighbors and the parents and the people in this community.

People come to live in communities that have great schools and because they know that the students that the school is educating are going to be educated and they’re going to be efficient and effective citizens.

Thankfully, Sonoma has great support from people who didn’t go to school here, people who didn’t have children in school here, people who make financial and other contributions because they believe a great community needs great schools.

It sounds like you are working hard. Do you have any regrets about stepping forward?

I’m having fun. I get up in the mornings and, gosh – I’ve got all these wonderful things to do today.

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.