Now that the Sonora Union High School District has selected a new superintendent, it's time for the community to work through long-standing disagreements.
Mark Miller, in an interview with Union Democrat reporter Giuseppe Ricapito Tuesday night after the board announced the choice, said all the right things about the issues that have caused the most consternation: finances and disposing of the historic Sonora Dome and Wildcat Ranch, the school's farm.
He said he would talk to everyone involved before deciding what he thought about the two properties. He said he would work to ease the financial problems, which he thought the board had handled well. He is no stranger to tight finances, having faced them in Juneau, Alaska, where he is superintendent.
In May, the Juneau Empire reported that 10 first-year teachers were let go due to budget cuts in the 4,600-student district that includes six elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools, an alternative high school, a pre-K-8 Montessori School and a K-8 charter school.
Miller was quoted by the newspaper as saying, “We ran out of money is the long and short of it. We did not get quite what we were hoping for from the state, plus we lost 54 students.”
His candor is to be applauded.
But the most important statement Miller made to our reporter is this: “Kids are first, and kids are the future. Every decision I make is what's best for our students — what's best for our kids — how can we support them because that’s what we do.”
To see everything through that lens is essential when Miller and this board begin to sort through all the problems facing the district's schools. It's not only property and finances, but also vision. What does this district want to be, and where is it headed?
There is a huge problem in just getting kids to school. Sonora High has a high percentage of absences every day, which in turn decreases the amount of money the school gets from the state.
The rising cost of special education must be addressed in a way that benefits the students the district is legally and morally required to serve.
Administrators must find the sweet spot in its curriculum, setting the correct mix of academic and career and technical classes to ensure students are ready for college and/or work.
It should be noted Miller 's newness to Sonora and its high school is a plus.
Just three years ago when Sonora Principal Pat Chabot was elevated to the superintendent's job, the board received push back from people about the choice of a long-time Sonora High faculty member. Chabot had worked there for 22 years.
Board member Jeanie Smith, who is now the board president, said then, “I know that there has been some talk that this was a predetermined decision, but it was not.” Numerous applicants were considered, people in and out of the district, she said.
Chabot inherited a rash of troubles, from bad feelings about the Measure J bond that was used to renovate buildings and to build one of the finest swimming facilities in the region to the declining student population that in turn caused many of the financial problems.
Needless to say, the community is divided. The board must acknowledge and accept its role in the feelings of mistrust. The board has yet to do this. And the public expression from at least one member of challenging others to run for the board if they think they can do better is not helpful.
Hopefully, Miller will bring fresh ideas — tried and tested ideas — to heal some wounds and set a new course for the school.