Sunday, June 24 , 2018, 7:40 pm | Fair 67º


Noozhawk Talks: Leslie Dinaberg Sits Down with Gerrie Fausett

Newly retired Hope School District superintendent looks back on her tumultuous stewardship

Despite being told by her predecessor that being superintendent of the Hope School District was “a cupcake of a job,” it often seemed more like a pie in the face for Gerrie Fausett, who is retiring after four and a half years at the helm of the small, high-performing, elementary school district. Here she talks exclusively with Noozhawk’s Leslie Dinaberg.

Leslie Dinaberg: Now that you’re ending your somewhat tumultuous tenure as superintendent, how do you feel?

Gerrie Fausett: A quote that I used at my last board meeting was, “Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it.” It kind of sums up what the nearly five years was about. ... I feel a great sense of relief. I’m happy and I’m thrilled that things have worked out the way they have. ... Seeing a budget like this without the governor (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) screwing around with it ... reflects the Basic Aid pot of what we thought we could get to. It’s like a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth; it is such a jolt ... if left alone we would be in a very healthy position to continue moving forward.

That being said, the difficulty is that Basic-Aid districts (school districts in which funding is based on property taxes rather than Revenue Limit, which is based on the number of students) will have a fair share. ... Those numbers could be as high as $600,000 for our district, which would be very devastating. ... There are a lot of things that we did that I’m really very proud of, but seeing that path be cleared, that financial path cleaned and cleared the brush moved away, so to speak, so that the district can move on down the road is extremely rewarding.

Gerrie Fausett says she has always tried to put school children first.
Gerrie Fausett says she has always tried to put school children first. “That’s one of the things that I’ve tried to keep at the forefront is what’s best for kids,” she says. “What I had to do was define that even further and say what’s best for the kids of this district.” (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

LD: But not knowing what the state of California will take back is a big deal.

GF: It’s a huge deal, because it will really determine whether we have money above our reserve or we do not. They could really stick us badly.

LD: At least you have a new superintendent (Daniel Cooperman, former assistant superintendent of Goleta Union School District) coming in from a Basic-Aid district, so presumably he is knowledgeable about that.

GF: He is knowledgeable about that ... I think the board’s choice is extremely wise because there won’t be any of this training to understand the budget from a different perspective.

LD: When you were first hired was this sort of the vision you had for going to Basic Aid?

GF: No. I didn’t even know what Basic Aid was. I had no idea. I knew that Montecito (Union School District) had a lot of money but I didn’t really know why. ... When this job came up, (former superintendent) Les Imel and I had a conversation. He thought I would be a good candidate. I was flattered and I thought it was a Revenue-Limit district, just like Santa Barbara, except it was little and extremely high-performing and with high parent involvement and all that. I thought, wow, what a great job to apply for. I had no idea that the budget, truly, that we were deficit spending, and didn’t realize it until about six months into the job.

Then I began asking questions about what does that mean we’re deficit spending. Why are we deficit spending? And finding out that, yes, the more children you have the more money you get, but the money we were getting per student has decreased each year now for those poor districts, and it was never enough to keep up with the inflation of teachers, aides, the cost of trash, waste, maintenance, all of that kind of stuff. Consequently we had to take more and more from the reserve in order to make it work. At that point we began to take a look to find out what’s the remedy. The remedy (not letting transfer students attend the schools) was one that was extremely distasteful and it ended up being what we had to do.

I would have thought more carefully — not that I wouldn’t have taken the job — but had I known it would have been as disruptive and caused so much concern to so many families both in and out of the district, I’m not sure that I would have gone that direction. So, no, it was not something that I came in thinking, hey, this is a perfect opportunity for this district to slip into Basic Aid. I just did not have any idea.

LD: It’s a big change in a pretty short amount of time.

GF: It’s huge and, you know, walking in here and Les, one of his favorite things to say was, “it’s a cupcake district here. You know it’s just the right size, it’s a sweet little place to be, it’s a cupcake of a job.” He would say that kind of a thing.

LD: Would you tell Dan Cooperman it was a cupcake of a job?

GF: I wouldn’t say that. (Laughs) Like I said, then we began the work of reaching out to some consultants and trying to find out what would we have to do. And then you know the rest of that story.

LD: That’s so interesting because I think there’s a perception among some people that you were sort of brought in to be the hammer and there was this Machiavellian plan.

GF: I’m sure there is, but I can tell you I had no clue, no clue what was in store here in the district. ... I can almost remember the day when I realized what we were going to have to do after sitting there with a consultant, a couple of board members, and (business manager) Julie Wood, and just thinking how do we do this? I kept saying let’s look for another consultant. Let’s throw money at this problem and make sure we can’t do something else. But everybody I talked to ... all of these people who know schools inside and out said, “There’s no other way. There was no other way to get out of it.” That was a real realization, that was my awakening, that was when I realized this was going to be a job that I really didn’t have that kind of training for. Making tough decisions, yeah, making changes, yeah, working with people, yeah, curriculum, improving test scores, all of those kinds of things that I’ve done in the past. Building a GATE program at Washington School, all that kind of thing. But this one was moving toward a Basic-Aid district. How do you do that?

LD:: It’s very challenging. There are wonderful families in the district, but nobody takes anything lying down.

GF: It links back into something as seemingly small as who’s teaching a certain grade to something like what we’re talking about here, and holy mackerel. Quite frankly, Santa Barbara is going through this right now with very little uproar.

LD: I think it’s because it’s so big, parents don’t feel that same sense of being able to walk into the superintendent’s office or even the principal’s office and get their ear.

GF: I think it’s partly because we’re so small, but also because parents are so used to being in classrooms volunteering, driving for field trips — people are just so very involved that they consider these their schools, and, so you’re right, there is this ownership. So when there’s a change made — as there is always going to be change — people just sometimes don’t respond very well to it. And something like that, those people who were supportive were pretty quiet about it because it wasn’t politically correct to stand up and say, yeah, I don’t want you in my district. ... Quite frankly, you need to go back to Kellogg School or wherever it might be. So there was this just this outcry. I expected it, I anticipated it, I didn’t under-anticipate, I was pretty much dead on. ... Those were just agonizingly painful meetings.

LD: They were really tough.

GF: ... It was the right thing to do, there is no question, but sometimes the right thing to do is the hardest thing to do. Luckily, the board saw that very clearly and they didn’t do it cavalierly, certainly not. It was an agonizing decision.

LD: When you took this job did you think that you would be retiring so soon?

GF: No. I remember in the second interview, a board member asked me where I was going to be in 10 years and I said, “right in that chair.” I was not thinking about retirement at all until about a year ago, and I just began to be tired. ...

I think that overall the timing is perfect ... I’ll be out of the picture and the new superintendent can kind of come in, and we’ve turned the corner and now we’re on a new path. It seems to me it’s a clean break. It’s a time that makes sense to make that change. But, no, I had no thoughts that I would be retiring at 61 and a half.

LD: You had a tough few years.

GF: See these scratches on the table? They’re from my fingernails (Laughs).

LD: What are your immediate plans?

GF: Vacationing in the Caribbean, visiting a couple of different islands and then getting in a sailboat in the British Virgin Islands and sailing around for 10 days with friends and family.

LD: Is your husband retired already?

GF: Yes, he’s been retired a little over a year from county Flood Control. ... He has been an incredible support. I think that all of us lucky enough to have spouses in this business with the late nights, and sometimes very, very difficult periods of time, and they have to listen to it — and they hear us and they probably get exceedingly tired of listening to us. But I think you have to have some sort of support system to do a job like this.

LD: I bet you won’t miss being in the public eye.

GF: ... I am hopeful that when I think back on this job in 15 or 20 years I won’t still be talking about this part of it. I’d like to think that I’d be talking about some other things that were accomplished. ... Kids are just really important and that’s why we all go into this business. Sometimes I think people lose sight of that, but I think that’s one of the things that I’ve tried to keep at the forefront is what’s best for kids. What I had to do was define that even further and say what’s best for the kids of this district.

LD: If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they be?

GF: Determined, humorous, ethical. And, boy, I’ll get comments on that (laughs).

Vital Stats: Gerrie Fausett

Born: July 23, 1948, in Wichita, Kan.

Family: Husband Larry, son Cameron, 25

Civic Involvement: Board member, The Marjorie Luke Theatre and Chamber Music Society of Santa Barbara

Professional Accomplishments: Hope School District superintendent; Santa Barbara School District assistant superintendent elementary; principal, Santa Barbara Junior High and Washington School; assistant principal, La Colina Junior High and Franklin School; Adams School resource specialist; Washington School teacher; Los Angeles Unified School District resource specialist and diagnostician.

Best Book You’ve Read Recently: The 19th Wife

Little-Known Fact: “I love antique farm equipment. As my son calls it, ‘old rusty stuff.’”

– Leslie Dinaberg is a frequent Noozhawk contributor and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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