TURLOCK -- The Burlingame superintendent who rose to national attention after taking a critically acclaimed memoir of apartheid South Africa out of eighth-grade classrooms was named superintendent of the Turlock Unified School District on Wednesday.
The board of trustees voted unanimously to make Sonny Da Marto the superintendent of schools. William H. Gibson announced his retirement in October after almost 16 years on the job.
Da Marto, 60, spent 8½ years heading the 2,400-student, kindergarten through eighth grade Burlingame School District. Previously, he served as associate superintendent of the 11,000-student San Mateo-Foster City School District for 14 years. Turlock has 13,000 students.
Da Marto made headlines in April 2007 when "Kaffir Boy," a memoir by Mark Mathabane, was pulled from classrooms after a parent complained about an explicit scene describing starving 7-year-olds prostituting themselves for food. Da Marto replaced the original version with a modified edition in which the scene is less graphic.
"I never banned the book," Da Marto said Wednesday. "That was completely blown out of proportion. I simply replaced it with the correct version for that age level."
Turlock board of trustees President John Sims read a glowing letter from Burlingame school board President Michael Barber that said "he is your gain and our loss."
In a letter of recommendation, State Superintendent Jack O'Connell wrote that Da Marto "brings with him a passion for ensuring that each child has equal educational opportunities and, in the process, develops a lifelong love of learning."
The district hired the California School Boards Association to find a replacement for Gibson. Several trustees said the book incident came up in the background process, but Da Marto's reputation for increasing test scores and sound fiscal planning outshone any controversy.
When Da Marto started with Burlingame, the district had less than the state-mandated 3 percent monetary reserve, which he got back on track during his tenure. He also led the district in a successful $48.3 million bond measure in November to modernize and repair Burlingame schools.
"I got to the point that I wanted other challenges," Da Marto said Wednesday. "I felt I did all I can do in Burlingame -- 800 to 900 API scores, a balanced budget, a successful bond measure. I've always strived to do more for more kids and this is that opportunity."
De Marto had to negotiate out of a four-year contract with Bur-lingame to take the job. He was given one year's salary.
Born in Las Vegas and educated primarily at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Da Marto is looking for a home in Turlock with his wife, Kathy. His four adult children work in education.
After the announcement of Da Marto's selection, he made a short speech to the 40 or so school officials gathered in the high school performing arts building.
"I want to pledge my personal support to each and every one of you," he said. "I don't make decisions by myself; in fact, I think decisions are best made by a team."
He paused and recited a line he later said he uses often: "Just when the caterpillar thought his world had come to an end, he became a butterfly."
Da Marto starts his job July 1.
Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2391.