Pleasanton Weekly

Opinion - July 23, 2010

For retired school superintendent John Casey, it's been quite a ride

It's been quite a ride for John Casey, who retired last month after eight years as superintendent of the Pleasanton school district. Casey was hired in 2002 to succeed Mary Frances Callan, who took a similar post in Palo Alto after several tumultuous years here. During that time, she weathered changes on the school board, late night board meetings and frequent confrontations with some constituents who were calling for construction of a third high school to stem the ongoing "bubble" enrollment increases at the early part of the decade.

By 2002, after it was clear the newly acquired Bernal Community Park would be off-limits for a new high school, those pleas quieted. The board, led by the late Juanita Haugen, who was instrumental in hiring Casey away from the Pajaro Valley Unified School District that serves Watsonville, also included Kris Weaver, Gloria Fredette and Pat Kernan, who is now the longest serving school board member. Mrs. Haugen's mandate called for establishing Pleasanton's as a world class school district, which Casey made his mission going forward.

Surging enrollment still affected school campuses in his early years and for a while he and the board considered creating an academy, something less than the full comprehensive Amador Valley and Foothill high schools but one that would meet the Pleasanton district's three bars of rigor, relevance and relationships. An academy of 300 students, as proposed, met the relationship criteria that some students found missing at the two larger high schools. The relevance factor worked at an academy, but the schools Casey eyed failed in the rigor test. In math, for example, he saw one teacher in an academy taking responsibility for all courses, calculus down to basic algebra, with little time to prep for the day or to really understand all of the material that needed to be taught. While the idea of a smaller school had appeal, Casey persuaded the board to continue instead the expansion of the Foothill and Amador Valley campuses, where two-story classroom buildings, new libraries and athletic facilities have been completed.

With enrollment already at 14,300, not much lower than today's 14,800 students, Casey also had time during his eight-year term to focus on making education better, on building the world-class academic reputation that Haugen sought. Again, with some board members and faculty, Casey toured the premier school districts in the country, such as Naperville High outside of Chicago, schools outside of Boston and the top-rated schools in California. He agreed that the Pleasanton schools in terms of SAT scores, state testing results and college acceptances already placed Pleasanton among the best, but his efforts over the eight years were to make the schools here even better. At board meetings and in the parent groups that he established, he continually asked what can we do as a school district to become just a little bit better. He worked with his staff on continuing improvement models, setting higher goals each year, and developing strong strategic plans using a process called "futures forecasting." These planning sessions looked at what the world would be like 15-20 years from now and how the Pleasanton education experience was enabling teenagers to meet those future demands. His strategic plan included specific elements, such as achievement, innovation, creativity, global orientation and environmental awareness, making the plan the guiding light for the Pleasanton school district as it stands today. An excellence committee was formed with some 50 participants to make the effort as publicly transparent as possible, using available funds to hire more counselors that in Casey's peak year of achievement lowered the ratio of students to counselors from 698:1 to 350:1.

But it was not to last. With multi-billion-dollar state deficits ravaging Sacramento and essential school funding, the good times started downhill several years ago with budget cuts of $2 million in 2008-09, $11 million in 2009-10, and now another $8 million in the current fiscal year. His push for a parcel tax failed by a few percentage points of achieving the two-thirds majority vote needed. With funding cuts continuing, Casey found himself in more recent months forced to dismantle some of the world-class improvements he and the school board established, a task that now falls on the shoulders of Pleasanton's new superintendent Parvin Ahmadi, a challenge she seems well-prepared to tackle.

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