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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.

‘Dysfunctional’ board

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.

“So far, it’s working well,” he said.

His yearlong contract calls for him to work the equivalent of 89 full-time days, for a salary of $74,400. He’ll be paid $836 for any additional days worked. His broad mandate from the board, he says, is to rebuild trust with the community, improve relationships among board members and district leaders, oversee the facilities upgrades covered by the bond measure and stabilize finances, paving the way for his successor.

“They’ve hired me to do this. They ought to trust me,” he said. “That’s the way a board (should) work with a chief executive, whether it’s education or a private business.”

Giving a helping hand

People who’ve known him for decades weren’t surprised when Young once more put retirement on pause to assist a struggling institution.

In 2008, billionaire Southern California philanthropist Eli Broad turned to Young to steer the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles out of financial trouble after its endowment diminished from $40 million to $6 million in just nine years.

Broad, the museum’s founding chairman and life trustee, pledged a $30 million bailout but wanted his longtime friend to serve as interim chief executive officer. Young had returned from Qatar where he served as president of an educational and scientific foundation from 2004 to 2006.

For Broad, it made perfect sense to appoint Young chief of the museum. He was approachable, charismatic and took the time to listen and understand people.

“He’s a person that people respect,” Broad, 84, said in a recent phone interview.

Young quickly guided the museum back to financial health, trimming budgets and staff. In less than a year, the museum also managed to raise nearly $30 million — not including Broad’s pledge — from trustee fees, donations and other revenue sources.

“He got everyone to work together,” Broad said. “He’s a voice of reason.”

Making history in SoCal

Reared in the small citrus town of Highland, Young initially attended San Bernardino Valley College, where he met Sue Daugherty, whom he later married and had two children with; she died in 2001 after a long battle with breast cancer.

Young served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and then returned to school, eventually enrolling at UC Riverside, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1955. He later earned his master’s and doctorate degrees from UCLA.

He briefly worked for UC President Clark Kerr before going to work for UCLA, where he quickly climbed his way up to chancellor in 1968. At the age of 36, he was the youngest person in the country to lead a major university.

Under his leadership, UCLA experienced a major funding boost. Private fundraising grew from $6 million to just under $191 million by his retirement, while outside support for the university’s research program increased from $66 million to $406 million. The university’s operating budget grew from $170 million to nearly $2 billion.

A vocal critic of Proposition 209, a California ballot measure that prohibited public universities from considering race in its admissions, Young pushed for more diversity on campus. During his tenure, the number of minority students grew from 23 percent to about 60 percent.

He also defended the radical Angela Davis in the 1960s when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and UC regents tried to fire her before she could start teaching.

“It still is one of the most inclusive universities in the country. UCLA is a far better place having that (diversity),” said Young, who would later defend affirmative action, albeit unsuccessfully, at the University of Florida.

Young became UF’s interim president in 1999. It was supposed to be a short-term job. Within days of his arrival, though, Gov. Jeb Bush eliminated affirmative action, leaving Young and other college presidents to figure out how to keep their campuses racially diverse. Florida lawmakers then disbanded the state university system’s governing board, which created a challenge for UF in finding a permanent president.

In the end, Young stayed four years.

Dedicated to his job

“He’s a dynamo with a great desire to be a public servant in whatever form,” said Joe Mandel, who served as UCLA’s vice chancellor of legal affairs for 16 years before retiring in 2007.

Mandel wasn’t surprised to learn when his former boss and friend stepped out of retirement for the fourth time to become Sonoma Valley Unified’s interim superintendent. Young doesn’t like to sit back. A charismatic and energetic leader, he’s always ready to tackle new challenges, Mandel said.

He’s not the type to spend his retirement on the golf course. The man likes to be engaged — it’s in his DNA, said John Sandbrook, who spent nearly two decades at his right elbow as his assistant chancellor and continues to remain close friends.

A week doesn’t go by that they don’t hear from one another, said Sandbrook, who lives in Westwood and retired from the UC system in 2010. He recalled one of his visits to Florida when Young returned from a board of regents meeting, where he had gotten into a passionate debate over affirmative action.

“He was quite angry. He told me he got into it with Jeb Bush,” he said.

At UCLA, Sandbrook said, “Quite often, my job was to put a cold towel on him and bring him down from the ceiling.”

Young was devoted to the university and higher education on a “24-7 basis,” Sandbrook said. While a member of Kerr’s staff, he worked on the state’s master plan for higher education.

It also wasn’t uncommon to see him on the sidelines of a UCLA sports game. Though he is no longer a young man, Sandbrook expects his friend will show the Sonoma Valley school district the same commitment.

“There is not going to be anybody on the face of the earth more dedicated. That’s because he is who he is,” he said.

However, he warned, “The football coaches better worry about the superintendent coming down in the fourth quarter and sticking his noise in the huddle. You’ll have a superintendent drawing up a play.”

College versus K-12

It was retired Intel executive Les Vadasz, who approached Young about the job. Vadasz, who lives in Sonoma, believed his longtime friend could calm the waters.

“I thought it was important. His presence could do a lot of good for both the community and school district,” said Vadasz, who also sits on the Sonoma Valley Foundation Education board and is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Young contends school board trustees overstepped their bounds, attempting to micromanage district staff, which created unnecessary pressure and led to Carlomagno’s departure. She did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

A board ought to provide advice and direction but trust its administrators to do their jobs, said Young, who spent 30 years on the board of computer chip maker Intel.

Despite his successful career in higher education, some residents questioned his knowledge to lead a K-12 system, particularly at a time of changing academic standards. Young, who pushed education reform at the Los Angeles Unified School District in the 1990s, pointed to the similarities in running a university.

“You are dealing with students at both levels,” he said. “You’re (also) dealing with faculty. You’re dealing with parents, and you’re dealing with community.”

He planned to put in an equivalent of two full work days a week, but he said it’s looking more like three and a half days. He sometimes comes in early to meet with staff and school administrators. Other days, he’s visiting campuses or meeting with local residents.

“Some days I start at 8:30 and work until 2:30 p.m.,” he said while sitting in his Sonoma Valley district office, which aside from the folders and documents scattered on his desk remained bare.

He spent at least four hours late last month at Prestwood Elementary, exploring the campus and meeting with faculty and staff. Students peeped as the more than 6-foot-tall figure made it down the corridors of the 400-student campus, accompanied by Principal Jason Sutter. Young stopped by several classrooms, interested in the new math and writing programs implemented in the grade schools.

“He’s very interested in understanding what programs are in place that are effective and how we can replicate them,” Sutter said.

In Katie Grimes’ classroom, he leaned over a fourth-grader and asked what book he was reading. Next door in Ellie Katzel’s class, third-graders explained their math project to him.

“It’s just great seeing what they’re doing,” Young said. “I’ve been impressed with the children.”

He’s a goal-getter

While much of his time will focus on the board dynamic and trimming the budget, he’s set other goals, including exploring alternatives to suspension and boosting language proficiency among English learners. Both were identified as areas that need improvement by the California Dashboard, the state’s new public schools report card.

“It’s been interesting to see how quickly he picks up,” said human resources director Loyal Carlon, who agreed to take on some of the superintendent duties, with Young working part-time.

While he vowed to pace himself, Young came in with “blazing energy,” Carlon said. He’s sending emails on the weekends and spending time with residents, parents, employees and elected officials to “assure them the district hasn’t dropped the ball,” Carlon said.

“People seek him out,” he said. “That’s part of the benefit of having him.”

Young reached out to La Luz Center in hopes of learning more about the Latino community’s needs. The nonprofit provides health, education and financial literacy programs for the Latino residents of Sonoma Valley.

“If anyone can make a big change in a small period of time, it’s Chuck Young,” said executive director Juan Hernandez, who first heard of the internationally recognized leader from his father, a UCLA graduate.

Concerned the district would not be able to find a quality superintendent by the start of the new school year, Tim Wallace, board chairman of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, thought of the former UCLA chancellor.

As the foundation’s top fundraiser, Young was instrumental in expanding early literacy and preschool programs throughout the district. Hoping to convince him to take the job, Wallace asked Vadasz to make the initial call.

“He wasn’t certain Chuck would be interested, but he thought it would be worth a try,” said Wallace, a member of the Benziger family and former Benziger Family Winery president.

Young initially dismissed the idea, until he starting getting calls from a few more people, including Wallace and school board President Dan Gustafson. Young wanted to run the idea by his wife, Judy, who ultimately gave her blessing.

While Gustafson was disappointed to see Carlomagno go, he said there isn’t a better person to fill the interim position than one who supported her programs and vision. The five-member school board unanimously voted to hire Young on July 10.

“There is a sense of continuation. It’s not like a new administration that is at odds,” said Gustafson, who was grateful the former chancellor took on the job.

“We learned it never hurts to ask,” Gustafson said. “Dream big and ask.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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