Running a school district in difficult economic times is not a task for the faint of heart. With the challenges, however, there are rewards and triumphs associated with being in a position of influence on the lives of many children.
In his 10 years in the Oakdale Joint Unified School District, and now starting on his third year as District Superintendent, Fred Rich has seen and dealt with the highs and lows of the economy and has decided to retire at the end of this school year in 2011. He made his announcement at the Sept. 13 meeting of the district’s Board of Trustees.
He said the decision to announce his retirement at this point in the year will give the board time to find a suitable replacement. Retiring at the end of this school year, he feels, is the right time.
“First of all, it is nice to leave on top,” Rich said. “I really do think that the Oakdale Joint Unified School District’s … facilities, instruction, and student achievement are at a point we haven’t been in the past. And we’re at a point, I think, where the town is very, very proud of our school system.”
He also cited his age, as he will be 62 when he retires. He suggested that perhaps it’s time for a younger person to step into the role. He noted that he had a health scare two years ago — undergoing a heart procedure — but he’s doing very well now. Even so, he said, it still makes one think about what they want to accomplish.
He said he’d like to have more time for doing what he finds really important. He’s involved in church work and would like to be more active in charitable work, especially with the Oakdale Educational Foundation.
Another reason is financial, noting he’s in a good spot for retirement and that it’s an opportune time to possibly lower the Superintendent’s salary or consolidate the position, which is a school board decision. He feels that his announcement now will give the board plenty of time to determine how they will handle the filling of the position and weigh the possibilities, especially considering the economy.
Rich was hired at the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year, serving under then-new Superintendent Dr. Wendell Chun. Rich was the director for human resources and a short while later became Assistant Superintendent for HR. He was then promoted to Deputy Superintendent. He credits Chun as a mentor who provided him with opportunities to lead board meetings and to make important decisions in his transition to the Superintendent role.
“(Rich) has been a wonderful leader and a source of information when we need it,” said OJUSD Trustee Bill Dyer. “He filled some big shoes when Wendell Chun left. We’re sorry to see him go.”
Rich said that the years he served under Chun were mostly good economic times but the tide had started to turn during Chun’s last two years and they knew leaner times were coming. The school district was in a good position to brace for tougher economic times, he said, but added that nobody was in a good position to brace for this recession.
“We have cut salaries and we have cut programs for four consecutive years in this district,” Rich said. “I really do care for the people I work with. I really don’t like the trimming of people and programs.”
Trustee Mike House said that it was difficult for Rich to make those decisions, but that Rich knew it was his job and was up to the task.
“It’s tough on everybody (to make cuts). Fred has a deep sense of how this affects everybody,” House said. “…In a small town like Oakdale, you know the people affected.”
Challenges And Rewards
As Rich acknowledged the trials, he also pointed out what makes Oakdale so different. He said the parent teacher organizations, booster clubs, service clubs, church groups, and the district’s cooperative unions have stepped up to help make it possible for the district to meet goals to get students the education they deserve, even with larger class sizes and fewer instructional materials.
He believes they all struggled together through the budget cuts but conceded that for the next couple of years, students will unfortunately have to make due with less.
“There has been sometimes a perception that we need to cut the fat or we need to spare a program, when in fact, we haven’t dealt with fat for a long time and all programs are important,” he said.
Each parent has programs that they favor, Rich added, but as Superintendent he had to look at a balanced educational program. He said the most disheartening thing is that students this year and the next two years deserve the same quality education and the same frills that were available three years ago but the economy simply won’t allow that to happen. He feels that weighs heavily on the whole educational community, starting with the board on down.
“The biggest challenge was trying to still provide a high quality education with dwindling resources,” he said.
“He’s shown good leadership in offering options to the board and explaining the impacts of the cuts we make,” Trustee House added.
Rich said that the slower economy, however, helped the district in other respects because it received low bids on projects that otherwise would’ve been much more costly.
“One of the very excellent things that Oakdale had done was prepare itself with a bond issue and developer fees to where we could, surprisingly, get great things done with the facilities the last three years,” Rich said.
He cited the now-finished Oakdale High School pool as being built almost entirely out of project savings because bids had come in lower than anticipated.
“I really think the swimming pool was a completion of all the promises made in the bond. Keeping your promise to a town is very important,” Rich said. “The culmination of the swimming pool really does now meet all of the things we promised the town when we asked them to support a bond.”
Another major project completed on his watch was the junior high school permanent classroom buildings, which eliminated a significant number of portables that had served as classrooms for many years.
Rich also noted the great progress that has been made educationally during his years in the district because of the teachers, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Barbara Shook’s leadership, Dr. Chun’s vision, and the board’s creation of a strategic plan and sticking to it.
“I’m very pleased and proud of the rise in our AYP/API scores,” he said of his time at the helm.
These scores rank a school’s academic performance.
He added that it’s nice for Oakdale to be both strong academically and athletically and that any student graduating from OHS has doors open to them to go on to a four-year school. As well, he said the quality of education for the average student has improved dramatically, as evidenced by test scores.
“I’m very pleased with two things: we improved student achievement and we have kept our promise for facilities,” Rich said. “…We really offer our students excellent facilities and excellent instruction… I think we have a good ‘plant’ as well as a good ‘product.’”
Time For Family, Community, Fishing
Rich pointed out that he’s not a “short timer.” He said he’s focused on keeping to the business of the district, but he does have plans for his retirement. He lives in Oakdale and said that the community has been very good to him and he’d like to volunteer more to give back.
“I hope to spend my time doing what I love doing and I truly do enjoy community service work,” he said. “I really enjoy spending time with quality people and sometimes that’s fishing, and sometimes that’s golfing, and sometimes that’s doing charitable work.”
He added that fishing is usually very tranquil and relaxing for him. He reported that he bought a nice fly fishing outfit but he’s “terrible” at the art of fly, though he’s hoping with practice and some patience he can become “adequate.” He plans to do more stream and lake fishing, which also means staying closer to home.
His retirement will also allow him to enjoy more time with his family. His wife, Susan Lawrence Rich, is an Assistant Superintendent for Stanislaus County Schools. They have two children, a daughter who graduated from UC Davis and is currently teaching English in Spain for a year and a son who attends Columbia Junior College. His mother lives in Manteca.
“They’re the most important people in my life. Retirement … they were involved in the discussions,” he said.
“As with any retirement, there are conflicts of emotion,” said Trustee House, adding that the district will be losing Rich’s “assets” in the sense of his experience, his understanding of budgets, and the trust that he has built with the community.
“He deserves it and he’s earned it… I’m happy when someone young and healthy is able to retire and enjoy it,” House said.
Rich said that he feels the decisions that were made while he’s been serving in the district have been good for the community and for the school district.
“We’ve had excellent leadership,” Rich said. “It’s really been a special time for the last 10 years. It’s a part of a successful education business that I really feel good about… We’re giving this town the best that we can give them.”