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Cardinal Newman High School drops principal position in leadership shake-up

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Graham Rutherford, the longtime principal who led his campus when the October wildfires burned Cardinal Newman High School, has been removed from his job.

In a restructuring effective Wednesday, Rutherford’s job has been eliminated, and he will work as part of a team of six administrators with the principal’s duties dispersed among the team. He will be the dean of student life.

“If this is the role that I can best help the school and students, then this is the role I will do,” said Rutherford, 59.

A 1977 graduate of the Catholic high school north of Santa Rosa, he has worked at the school for 35 years and been principal for 14 years.

Tom Nunes, who graduated from Cardinal Newman in 1981, disagrees with the move and vehemently opposes the restructuring, which he believes gives more power to the school’s president and treats Rutherford unfairly.

“You can’t go from principal to dean and not call it a demotion,” said Nunes, who lives in Sacramento but organizes alumni events and attends Cardinal Newman basketball and football games.

He points to Rutherford’s leadership in merging the all-girls Ursuline High School with Cardinal Newman in 2011 and the aftermath of the Tubbs fire as examples of why Rutherford should remain on as the principal.

“Graham was with the students (giving) consoling words and thumbs up to everyone in crisis every single day,” said Nunes.

Cardinal Newman students became a symbol of faith and resilience in the larger community as they were forced by the fire from their campus on Old Redwood Highway and dispersed at four different locations. Of the 619 students enrolled that school year, 110 lost their homes.

The football team, led by a quarterback and two wide receivers who lost their homes in the fires, went on to win the North Bay League title.

“It’s made it clear that the school community is the people, not the building,” Rutherford said then.

But school officials say it was the aftermath of the fire that prompted the structural changes. The decision was made by school President Laura Held, Rutherford said. She obtained approval from the bishop along with the diocesean superintendent, then informed Rutherford at a June 21 meeting that he would no longer be principal.

Held was on vacation this week and did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The decision was not voted on by Cardinal Newman’s 10-member board of directors. Paige Mazzoni, the board chairman, referred questions to Linda Norman, the diocesean superintendent.

Norman said the stresses of the school year — the structural losses, the coordination of students for education at four other parishes for months, reopening the school with portable classrooms in January and the current rebuilding process — opened the door to conversations on how administrators could be “quicker and more effective” in their decision-making process.

About half of the Catholic school’s Santa Rosa campus was left standing after the fire burned down its library, 20 classrooms, baseball field and administrative office.

“The school had to be very responsive to the needs of the students, families and the community,” Norman said. “It was definitely a lived experience, and I was so proud of them.”

Norman said Held’s role will stay the same — president in charge of all school decisions — and the new team of six who report directly to her.

In addition to Rutherford, the others are Rich Herrmann, dean of curriculum and instruction; Bernadette Calhoun, dean of technology and instruction; Jolie Trogdon, director of finance and human resources; Terri Derr, director of advancement; and Father Moses Brown, chaplain.

“You have the power of the team to address issues instead of funneling through one person,” Norman said.

The job of assistant principal, held by longtime administrator Douglass Kirk, also was eliminated. Kirk is now a senior counselor. He did not return calls seeking comment.

Rutherford said he has been contacted by people in the school community who have expressed “a variety of opinions” on the new administrative model, and Norman said she has heard from some people who were confused by it. The idea was inspired by other Catholic schools she oversees within the Diocese of Santa Rosa that have made the switch from president-principal to president-team, including Justin-Siena High School in Napa and St. Bernard Academy in Eureka.

“The principal is a hierarchical way, this is a distributable way,” Norman said.

Rutherford’s new role oversees athletics, student discipline and activities, and Norman said he remains a pillar of the school, which resumes Aug. 15.

“Our theme for the year is one of unity,” Rutherford said. “We need to work together.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.