Charles Young likes to quip that he flunked retirement.
The 85-year-old Sonoma man, who led UCLA for nearly three decades, is back at work once again, this time running a K-12 school district in his adopted hometown.
He may be the most overqualified public school superintendent in the United States.
In his long career, Young has steered one of Los Angeles’ largest art museums out of fiscal peril, presided over an education and science foundation in Qatar and held the top job at the University of Florida.
Before that, for 29 years, he was chancellor of UCLA, where his prowess as an administrator and fundraiser helped to transform the prestigious Los Angeles campus into one of the world’s leading public research universities. He retired from that job 20 years ago and remains the longest-serving chancellor of the university, which grew to 35,000 students during his tenure.
Now, Young is attempting to lead Sonoma Valley Unified School District and its 4,200 students through a controversy that has divided its board of trustees and led to the abrupt resignation of his predecessor in June.
“I wouldn’t have taken a job anywhere else,” Young said. “I did this because I thought it needed to be done and I could do it.”
Within his first few weeks on the job, Young met with all of the new teachers, principals and each of the five board members. He also started visiting the district’s 11 schools.
At Prestwood Elementary, children reveled in the chance to ask him questions, and they didn’t hold back. They wanted to know his age, how long he’d been at his job and what he liked about it. They also wanted to know if the job was difficult.
“It’s not easy,” he told the children. “I’m having a lot of fun doing it. That’s one of the things I think is very important about a job.”
Young, who moved to Sonoma seven years ago with his wife, Judy, to be closer to her family, came to the job in unusual fashion.
He publicly rebuked the district’s elected trustees in June when its superintendent, Louann Carlomagno, quit over frustrations with the board.
Young called the board “dysfunctional” and voiced concern that turmoil at the top of the district would impact fundraising efforts by the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, where he served as a board member for the past five years. He stepped down from that role to speak out against the school board after Carlomagno resigned to take an interim superintendent position in Hillsborough.
Four weeks later, he was appointed her successor, on a part-time, interim basis for a year.
His arrival comes amid a turbulent time for the district, which needs to cut $1 million next year from its $52.5 million budget, despite already trimming $1.9 million.
Also weighing on the district: a cumbersome and contentious process to upgrade its aging facilities through a $120 million bond measure approved last year by voters; and an outside investigation into a hostile workplace complaint filed against a recently elected board member by a district official, who has since retired.
Young, in blunt words for an appointed leader, said he plans to straighten out the five-member board so it functions smoothly. He’s already met individually with board trustees to discuss their roles.