|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, November 1, 2004
Sacramento Bee 10-31-04
Dynamo is taking reins in burgeoning district
SAN LUIS OBISPO - Steven Ladd almost never stops moving. Walking through the hallways of the San Luis Coastal Unified School District headquarters, he leans forward, and his shiny dress shoes carry him to meetings in a near sprint. When he sits, his fingers twiddle. They twist. They tap. They roll pens in aimless circles.
Around here, people started noticing Ladd's restless energy shortly after he took over as superintendent. Practically overnight, he discovered the district was on the verge of financial collapse. He had a few thoughts: "Ho, ho boy." "I'll be darned. Oh, mercy." "OK, we'll figure this out."
Then he asked for something people had been missing for a while - a conversation. Suddenly, something else became apparent: Ladd's ability to pause, look you in the eye and absorb what you're saying, trying to say, even not saying.
"The one thing I like about Dr. Ladd," said Anne Limon, former PTA president of one of three schools that ultimately closed, "is that he listens."
At the end of November, Ladd will leave this little district for a very big one when he takes over as superintendent of Elk Grove Unified. Some of the hurdles Elk Grove faces mirror those in San Luis Coastal: This month the Elk Grove board cut $8.4 million from its budget.
But there is a clear difference. San Luis Coastal has 7,500 students and is getting smaller; Elk Grove has 58,500 and is getting bigger.
Few who know him doubt Ladd's ability to make such a huge leap. After all, they argue, he spent 20 years rising to the upper ranks of the 300,000-student Dade County, Fla., school district, one of the nation's most diverse. But after four years in the relative calm of a coastal community, where students have been known to surf before classes start in the morning, the challenges ahead are great.
Elk Grove's population explosion has brought real growing pains. Before he left in July to run the Sacramento County Office of Education, Elk Grove's previous superintendent, David Gordon, initiated hard conversations about race relations and the achievement gap between white students and students of color.
But troubles persist. As money drains away, schools remain large and overcrowded. Tensions among the district's students - who speak more than 80 languages - continue. In the past year, student expulsions and suspensions have soared. To maintain Elk Grove's national reputation, Ladd will need to confront these issues.
"The potential for division is there, and there's also the potential for unity," said Rudolph "Barry" Loncke, a retired Sacramento Superior Court judge who earlier this year chaired a task force examining race relations in Elk Grove schools.
"If a proactive approach is not taken, I fear that growth and diversity may create long-lasting problems," Loncke said.
Ladd's supporters say he won't waste any time.
"He's going to attack a problem and he's going to amaze you," said Russell Miller, San Luis assistant superintendent of business services. "People aren't going to like it. It's going to hurt. But in two or three years, when the state recaptures its momentum, Elk Grove is going to be a stronger organization."
In his second year, with San Luis still plagued by tight finances and declining enrollment, Ladd held meetings to discuss shutting schools. Parents yelled. They cried. But few ended up hating him.
As a result, they say, he saved numerous programs. Test scores, already good, increased. The school board unified. And the community started trusting the district office again.
Whether Ladd will spend his first day in Elk Grove the way he spent his first day here - donning a blue work shirt, hopping into a truck, introducing himself to each school secretary as he delivered the mail - remains to be seen.
That doesn't mean his tactics need change.
San Luis Coastal, halfway down the California coast, serves three communities. In Los Osos, insects chirp ecstatically against the dull roar of the sea. In Morro Bay, shops coax tourists to purchase saltwater taffy and aloha shirts, and sea lions bark in frenzied orgy behind the fresh fish market. In San Luis Obispo, California Polytechnic State University parents peruse antique stores, and drive-throughs are banned.
Students sometimes win sponsorship deals with local surf shops. A gate behind the Morro Bay High School athletic fields leads out to the dunes; a genuine concern exists that an earthquake could send a tidal wave rushing onto campus.
The coastal lifestyle keeps housing costs high; the median home price is more than $530,000. Ladd and his wife rent a two-bedroom apartment. They haven't been able to buy.
The main jobs - tourism, the men's prison, the county, the university - can't keep up with the cost of living. As a result, the area is graying, the schools are shrinking and children are quite the commodity.
Recently, Ladd saw a woman pushing a baby carriage down a sunny sidewalk.
"That's what I want," he said. "More kids."
Ladd's new district hardly lacks for clientele. While housing prices are rising in Elk Grove, much of that increase is driven by growth. Two decades ago, the district had fewer than 15,000 students. By 2010 it is projected to have 80,000.
Ladd arrived in San Luis Obispo in July 2000, on the heels of an unpopular superintendent and a school board that had faced two recalls in four years.
Money problems grew. In three years, the district slashed $10 million from its $50 million budget. Ladd agonized over every cut.
So he couldn't help but feel pleased last month when he visited the newly bald Morro Bay High School administration. After the school became the first in the county to meet the state's 800-point testing goal, students shaved administrators' heads.
"That's phenomenal," Ladd told those gathered in a cramped room lined with class pictures.
Among teachers, opinions of Ladd range from grudging respect to adulation. Their main criticism is that he's leaving - and has been trying to since shortly after he arrived. Ladd was a finalist in 2002 and 2003 for superintendent positions in Oregon. He says Elk Grove will be his last stop.
Jim Quesenberry, an English teacher at Morro Bay High, is the past president of the teachers association. He had voiced frustration that Ladd was looking for other jobs. Now, he is sorry to see him go.
"Teachers feel that they trust him and that's a good thing," Quesenberry said. "I think he's done a lot to justify that trust."
Ladd and his wife, Debbie Lichtman, met in Dade County in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, Ladd moved to Beaverton, Ore., where for seven years he ran the community outreach and business side of the 31,000-student district there. The journalism class Lichtman taught won awards.
She calls her husband "a renaissance man." In his 53 years, he's worked in a nursery, in construction, as a professional chef, as a teacher's aide.
And then there's his gray Volvo. Purchased in 1989, it has more than 200,000 miles on it, and at times has been without speedometer or dashboard. After Ladd was hired for the $187,000-a-year Elk Grove job, his assistant superintendent told him it was time for a new car.
"You can't use that, it's embarrassing," he said. "You're superintendent of this premiere district." Ladd had the car repainted.
Late last month, Ladd met other school officials in the converted middle school campus that serves as the San Luis Coastal district office. His hands pointed, chopped, tapped, then folded back into an unconscious thumb war. He spoke in quick succession about earthquake preparedness, No Child Left Behind and whether children with special needs were missing field trips.
"We don't want anybody to stay behind," he said. "Period. End of statement. Nobody stays behind."
Two days later, Ladd drove the Volvo through San Luis Obispo to the performing arts center, where he was to introduce students to classical music. He spent a moment watching them pour out of buses, all excited chatter and dramatic gesture.
"You remember those days?" he asked. His face contorted into an impression. "Field trip! Yay! Energy scale off the dial!"
He watched children fill row after row of pink seats. They hid their arms inside their sweatshirts, hugged their knees, kicked their feet. The lights dimmed. Ladd took the stage.
He told them they were in for a treat. He had fallen in love with "Peter and the Wolf" at their age, he said, and if they liked something they should applaud, not whistle. A few whistled anyhow.
An hour later, Ladd walked outside, his eyes pausing for a half-dozen conversations while his body maintained its leaning sprint.
"You like that?" he asked a shy little girl.
"You like that?" he asked some more talkative boys.
"We're gonna miss you," a teacher called.
Ladd smiled and hurried on.
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