Kathleen McNamara, who led the Paso Robles school district out of near financial collapse while angering teachers who felt she forced them to make too many sacrifices, announced she will retire as superintendent after this school year.
McNamara, 58, announced her plans to retire June 30 during a school board meeting Tuesday night.
“It was unexpected,” said Ashley Lightfoot, the public information officer and director of support operations for the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District.
Katy Griffin, president of the school board, said she was shocked to hear McNamara was retiring with a year left on her contract but also pleased with the work she’d accomplished.
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“She took on some amazing challenges,” Griffin said, adding, “She has weathered the storm.”
McNamara, who was hired to lead the district in 2007, was not available for comment Wednesday.
When McNamara was hired, the district’s main challenge was its low test scores. During her previous nine-year tenure as superintendent at the Banning Unified School District, McNamara had helped raise test scores there. At the same time, she was known as a hard bargainer and received a vote of no confidence from the Banning teacher’s union after tough contract negotiations.
During her time leading Paso, which has over 6,600 students and 11 schools, the district, like other districts, faced significant financial challenges during the recession. While state cuts impacted all districts, Paso Robles also lost money to declining enrollment and a $1.4 million accounting error.
At its worst, the district was on the brink of a state takeover as a result of its financial woes. In 2011, the district gave itself a negative certification, saying it might not have the one percent reserve fund required by the state at the end of the school year. But in January 2013, county schools Superintendant Julian Crocker announced that the district was was on a path toward fiscal stability.
While the district had rebuilt its reserve, it did so at a cost to teachers and staff, who had lost jobs and pay. Two weeks after the county announced the district had been upgraded to a “qualified” certification, the teachers union voted to give McNamara a vote of no confidence, saying the district needed to eliminate furloughs.
“People who make difficult decisions that affect lives and livelihoods are not, by default, popular,” Lightfoot said. “But leadership is not about being popular. It’s about being courageous in many cases. Kathy made a lot of very difficult decisions that people held against her personally. At the same time, these were decisions that had to be made.”
While some teachers called for McNamara to step down, the school board supported her.
Griffin said the school board reviewed McNamara twice a year.
“We trusted her,” Griffin said. “We were very much pleased with her performance.”
Under her leadership, test scores rose steadily despite cutbacks in finances, programs and staff. Flamson Middle School was rebuilt, and several building projects funded by Measure T were completed. The 12 teacher and staff furlough days have been whittled down, and now the district has a reserve fund plus savings.
McNamara steps down just as the district is seemingly stabilizing.
“Kathy is an old ranch girl, and Kathy likes to see the job through,” Lightfoot said. “She knew she had a tough task.”
McNamara, who currently earns $172,767 per year, plans to stay in Paso Robles, according to a press release from the district.
“I love Paso Robles, this district and all those who make it so special with their passion and dedication to public education,” the release quoted her. “I will miss the daily challenge of leading this district.”