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March 10, 2013

Marcos Breton: Sacramento superintendent fights for the kids

Who would want to be superintendent of Sacramento's public schools?

Who would want to be superintendent of Sacramento's public schools?

The question comes to mind whenever I see Jonathan Raymond, superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District for more than three turbulent years.

Raymond changed careers and passed up more lucrative opportunities in the private sector to move his family across country – away from everything they knew – in hopes of making a difference. For his troubles, he's been made the piñata for myriad entrenched interests in Sacramento.

When he came to town in fall 2009, Raymond cut a charismatic figure in tailored suits and spoke passionately of building alliances to improve conditions for Sacramento's children.

He had no idea what or whom he was messing with.

"I'm tired, honestly," Raymond said last week, waiting for the start of a court hearing where his policies were once again under attack by the Sacramento city teachers union.

"It takes a toll physically, emotionally and spiritually. It's a lonely road," he said.

Contrasting Raymond now with the eager guy I met in 2009 leaves one to wonder about the future of public schools. Because as much as Raymond tries to make his job about the kids, he regularly winds up in battles centered on the grievances of adults.

His opponents in the teachers union mock his hires and complain about their pay. His contract came up for renewal recently, and it seemed touch-and-go whether he'd survive.

Raymond created a "priority" schools program, an innovative effort that funnels additional resources to seven of the district's poorest and lowest-performing schools. Rather than celebrate its promise, his detractors snipe that he is "robbing" resources from "their" schools to prop up his pet projects.

Raymond is in court now because the priority schools were given special protections to try to stem the high teacher turnover rates that undermine achievement at challenged schools such as these. Teachers at the priority schools can be "skipped over" in the event of layoffs, even if they are less senior.

The union could have applauded the effort to put poor kids first. Instead, it sued.

And the legal mess comes on top of the scalding catcalls of parents – and some of his board members – that Raymond endured during recent public meetings that resulted in the closure of seven schools.

With the city's population aging and student enrollment falling, Sacramento City Unified should have closed schools years ago to consolidate resources and redirect funding. It didn't because other officials ran from the heat Raymond took head on.

When it comes to schools, people vote with their feet. If they don't have confidence in the public schools, they'll go to charter schools and private schools.

Raymond's committed to building up public schools. He is trying to close budget deficits he didn't create by shuttering schools that people stopped attending in sustainable numbers.

He is being accused of showing ethnic bias by closing schools in impoverished neighborhoods while sparing others in more prosperous ones. But with three-quarters of the district's students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, it would be pretty hard to close any school without being accused of affecting struggling families.

The truth is, there is no immaculate way to close any school and there are no criteria that would soothe angry crowds. The burden on Raymond now is to help the kids whose parents have spent weeks vilifying him.

He must do so in partnership with a teachers union that rejects low test scores as an evaluation of teachers' work – but points to those same scores when evaluating Raymond.

He's trying to secure federal money to aid in his latest cause: helping the "whole child." He envisions school programs that go beyond the strict curriculum of core academics and help kids become better citizens, with a sense of connection to the broader community.

When Raymond talks about teaching kids about "restorative justice" or about building on the inherent leadership potential in children who don't know they possess it, I see the guy I first met in 2009.

The idealism is gone after so many fights, but maybe idealism is overrated. For true believers like Raymond, being trashed is just part of the job.

Call The Bee's Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096. Follow him on Twitter @marcosbreton.

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