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Santa Rosa City Schools superintendent Kitamura to retire

Diann Kitamura, who has led Sonoma County’s largest school district through consecutive years of devastating wildfires, as well as school shutdowns, declining enrollment and now a coronavirus pandemic that has halted in-person learning for nearly a year, will retire June 30.

Kitamura, who turned 62 on Monday, announced her decision in a letter to Santa Rosa City Schools staff on Tuesday. It comes as the district tackles a series of high-profile challenges and projects, most pressing among them a return-to-school campaign that aims to have staff and facilities ready to open classrooms to the district’s youngest students by March 1. She vowed Wednesday to see the work through to the end.

“I’m going to continue in the way that I have always done,” she said. “I’m not going to fade away starting tomorrow. Oh, hell no.”

Kitamura said a factor in her timing was the toll the pandemic is taking on her 88-year-old mother who lives alone in Yuba City.

“This pandemic has done a number on her. It hasn’t been good,” she said. “I’m going to move her in with us, have some quality time.”

Another factor in her decision, Kitamura said on Wednesday was “this whole education versus politics that has occurred and was brought to light through the pandemic.”

“It’s an impossible situation that superintendents have been placed in and it’s taking away from what I love to do, which is teaching and educating,” she said. “We have been placed in situations to make medical decisions … and it’s just not fair.”

Kitamura’s announcement comes as the district is in the middle of contract negotiations with the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, as well as the California School Employees Association that covers front office staff, custodians and others. Separately, the district has yet to ink an agreement with the teachers association that would update existing health and safety guidelines for what a return to the classroom will look like during a pandemic.

Additionally, the district is in the early stages of a once-in-a-generation effort to redraw attendance boundary lines and rewrite transfer rules affecting which of its 24 campuses the district’s 15,700 students attend. That process is expected to be finalized in the fall.

District leaders are also examining the future of law enforcement on campuses, as well as considering the prospect of renaming at least two of schools: Monroe Elementary School and Luther Burbank Elementary School.

"Am I worried about the timing of this and the pandemic and the return to schools? Yeah, its going to be tough,“ Area 5 Trustee Ed Sheffield said.

First elected in 2016, Sheffield is, along with Board President Laurie Fong, the longest serving member of the board.

“Whatever the situation, this is just one more huge challenge that we are going to have to find a way to work though,” he said.

“Right now, everything is critical,” Fong said. “There is no order to these things, every one happens at once and they are all important for our students and our staff and families. How do we find a superintendent who can handle it?”

The board is expected this month to discuss how and when to launch a search for a new superintendent.

"I don’t think anyone who is going to hear this news is not going to think ’Wow this is another big thing,’ “ said Area 2 Trustee Jill McCormick. ”It is what it is. It’s another big thing on our plate.“

Board members heaped praise on Kitamura for what they described as her tireless work ethic, her communication skills and a focus on equity in all aspects of district work.

McCormick recalled that after she was elected in 2018 but before she was sworn in, she was invited by Kitamura to a statewide school boards association conference to help acclimate her to the job.

“I was kind of overwhelmed and little intimidated and there were thousands of superintendents and administrators and politicians and the whole thing. I quickly realized, because I had a badge on that said ’Santa Rosa City Schools,’ that (the district) was on the map,“ McCormick said. ”It was on the map at that convention because of Diann and her response to the Tubbs fire.“

The 2017 wildfire, which razed a district school, heavily damaged others and destroyed hundreds of student and staff homes, closed schools for three weeks. No year since has gone off unaffected by fires, floods, power shut-offs or a pandemic.

For her work, Kitamura was honored in November by the Association of California School Administrators with the Ferd. Kiesel Memorial Distinguished Service Award, the top honor in its annual program.

Kitamura has long been critical that school districts were left to navigate what she described as shifting, conflicting and vague guidance related to return-to-school requirements. Still, she vowed to press on with the goal of being ready to return staff and students to the classroom March 1 if local virus numbers allow, as well as to tackle myriad other issues facing the district.

“I’m not going to be a lame duck, I’m going to be a firecracker duck,” she said. "I’m not going sit back and let things happen. I am going to do my work.”

Kitamura, who began her career as an agriculture teacher and later became a counselor and administrator, was hired as an assistant superintendent in Santa Rosa in 2012 and promoted to superintendent in February 2016. In June 2019, her annual pay was boosted 18% to $235,000 amid some public outcry.

Her impending departure is just one of a host of similar announcements across Sonoma County’s 40 individual school districts. Sue Field, who for 27 years has been superintendent of the Bennett Valley Union School District, is also retiring, along with 23-year Kenwood principal/superintendent Bob Bales. Barbara Bickford, who for nine years has been superintendent of the Twin Hills Union School District, is also set to retire at the end of June.

Amy Jones-Kerr resigned as superintendent of Roseland Public Schools in November, one day prior to Socorro Shiels’ firing as superintendent of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

While Santa Rosa board members are slated to immediately begin crafting the parameters of their search for her replacement, they expressed confidence that Kitamura would remain heavily invested in district business through June.

“She is going to grind to the last minute of the last day,“ McCormick said.

Kitamura said as much.

“It’s been a great eight years in Santa Rosa City Schools,” she said. “I have learned so much. It’s been challenging to the nth degree, but I can look in the mirror and be proud of the work we have done.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

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