School district head leaving for Northern California

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Less than two years after coming to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, Superintendent Dianne Talarico is leaving to take the top post at a district in Northern California. Although she would not identify the district or describe it, Talarico confirmed to The Malibu Times on Monday a recent rumor she is the top candidate to head a Northern California district.

Talarico said she expects to be appointed to the position on Friday. A source familiar with the district told The Times it is K-8 with approximately 2,500 students. The SMMUSD has approximately 12,500 students. Talarico said she would remain with the SMMUSD through the high school graduations. She will begin her new job on July 1 after a brief vacation at the end of June.

Although her tenure has been plagued by controversy, Talarico said this did not factor into her decision. She said she wants to live with her husband Enrique Navas-Vasquez, who works as a chief financial officer for a school district in the North Bay Area. For the past two and a half years, they have been alternating between Northern California and here to see each other for a few days once a month.

“Last July, I turned 50 and it came to me ‘Oh my God, life is so short. This is ridiculous. I’m living apart from my one true love,'” Talarico said. “I put some things in perspective and realized that I really wanted to have a balanced life.”

Talarico and Navas-Vasquez married six years ago. When Talarico, who worked in the San Francisco Unified School District for nearly 20 years, was named superintendent of a school district in Canton Ohio, her husband moved there with her. But he returned to Northern California two and a half years ago “to give support” to his son, Talarico said. She then applied for two superintendent positions in Northern California, but did not get either of them. The search firm hired by the SMMUSD following the announcement of then-Superintendent John Deasy’s intention to leave for a school district in Maryland soon contacted Talarico. The Board of Education approved Talarico’s hiring in July 2006

Talarico said she did not think the distance from her husband would be a problem when she took the job with the SMMUSD. Board of Education President Oscar de la Torre, who along with Board member Kathy Wisnicki went to Ohio to meet Talarico prior to her selection, said he too thought this would not be a problem.

“They were only an hour away by flight, and I didn’t think it would be such an issue,” said de la Torre, who said he supports Talarico’s decision. “I’ve known Dianne to be a person who values family and that’s what is most important to her.”

Talarico informed the board she would be seeking a job closer to her husband “a couple months ago,” Wisnicki said. The superintendent confirmed her plan to leave during a board retreat on Thursday.

During the retreat, the board discussed the process to search for a new superintendent, Wisnicki said. She said all the board members agreed the best plan would be to hire an interim superintendent from outside the district while a nationwide search is conducted. During the search for Talarico, Assistant Superintendent Mike Matthews, and later then-Assistant Superintendent Tim Walker, served as interim heads. Wisnicki said that was not the best method.

“I think it puts a strain on our senior staff,” Wisnicki said. “The person has to cover the old job plus the superintendence. It creates more stability if we get somebody from the outside.”

Talarico has headed the district during many difficult situations. The most recent one was the arrest of Lincoln Middle School teacher Thomas Arthur Beltran for allegedly sexually molesting students.

In November 2006, Chief Financial Officer Winston Braham left the district after refusing to support a raise for teachers endorsed by Talarico. The secrecy of his departure, which included a signed agreement that he would not discuss district financial matters with a third party, irked the Santa Monica City Council. This dispute led to a greater confrontation about the district’s special education program. The council used its control of Santa Monica’s annual financial contribution to the district as leverage to force the SMMUSD to hire a consultant to do an audit of the program.

The results of the audit were included in a report released earlier this year by consultant Lou Barber & Associates. The report blasted several elements of the district’s special education program, including the use of confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements between the district and parents on children’s education plans. Santa Monica parents and city leaders hailed the report, while many in Malibu (including Wisnicki) and district special education staff challenged its content.

The report led to the resignation of Deputy Superintendent Walker, who was in charge of the special education program. His departure, which was not voluntary, was applauded in Santa Monica and angered many district staff members and Malibu parents.

Talarico has overseen a period of great division between Santa Monica and Malibu on issues other than special education. Against Talarico’s recommendation, the school board last year cut a portion of the facilities improvement bond money designated to Malibu High School. A large number of Malibu parents were outraged, and a group began the process to create an independent Malibu school district. After several months of debate, the board voted in February to restore the full funding for construction projects at Malibu High.

Talarico said regarding the many controversies, “Challenges in any area happen for a reason, and I’m a stronger leader because of them.”

De la Torre praised Talarico for what he called making achievements despite the challenges. He said her accomplishments included the hiring of a district CFO and chief education officer, beginning a process to change the district’s special education program and the creation of a program that allows students to take classes at Santa Monica College.

“Everyone who knows what Dianne has had to weather would agree it would be a difficult task for any education leader,” de la Torre said. “Despite the distraction, she has been able to put us on the right path.”

He said he does not believe the district’s current issues with the sexual molestation case and the special education program will deter qualified people from wanting to seek the superintendent position.

“People might have some concern about our central office, but what’s happening at the school sites is nothing less than remarkable,” de la Torre said. “We have issues like any other school district, but we’re more than competitive. We’re high-achieving on all standards and our students receive a high-quality education.”