When asked what’s been challenging about leading the Santa Rosa City Schools in California over her five-and-a-half year tenure, Superintendent Diann Kitamura can tick them off easily, one by one: Tubbs. Glass. Kincade.
Those are the names of the wildfires that rampaged through her district, destroying more than 800 students’ and staff members’ homes.
Asked about the challenges of leading through the 16-month stretch of the pandemic, she names the alphabet soup of federal and state health, education, labor, and occupational safety agencies whose conflicting and rapidly evolving guidance have shaped and sometimes constrained her ability to respond: the CDC, the CDPH, the CDE, OSHA, and the SRTA.
“Navigating politics when we have no say over what happens—that has just been a really horrible position to be in,” Kitamura said in a series of interviews earlier this month. “We’re selected to be leaders in a situation, and in an organization, where we have been stripped of our decisionmaking powers. And leadership is really all about those strategic decisions.”
At 62, Kitamura will leave the job June 30, one leader among what seems to be a growing exodus of superintendents nationwide. Her primary reason for leaving the job is to take care of her elderly mother—a responsibility tinged with new urgency due to the rise in anti-Asian violence—but she cites the maelstrom of pandemic-related drama right behind it.
The retirements are coming at a critical time. The imminent crisis of COVID-19 is winding down, but new challenges, like uncertain student enrollments and the responsibility of spending a once-in-a-lifetime infusion of federal cash are emerging.
Kitamura’s departure is, observers say, a loss for the district and for California’s Sonoma County in general. And more than that, it is a harbinger of what could be a major shift in the composition of the superintendency over the next few years.
“Part of the crux here is in this moment where we’ve seen incredible volatility, complexity, ambiguity, I think there is an unstated expectation from communities,” said Steven Herrington, the elected Sonoma County superintendent, who provides financial oversight of the 40 districts in the county. “They look to the leader to be the hero to save the day and have the answers. In this environment we’re navigating, there are no right answers. And there is a whole other set of leadership capabilities leaders will need to navigate this.”
Signs point towards more leadership retirements than usual this year
National talent search firms that specialize in superintendents are saying that they are fielding larger numbers of RFPs than usual for the superintendency. At least a portion of that, they say, is due to talented leaders who, like Kitamura, are finally pressing the gas pedal on retirement now that signs of recovery from the pandemic are on the horizon.
Benchmark figures of superintendent turnover are difficult to come by, but at least one hiring expert suggests the figure could be as high as 4,000 to 5,000 more than usual—about a third of the national force.
They look to the leader to be the hero to save the day and have the answers. In this environment we’re navigating, there are no right answers.
Strikingly, the leaders of the nation’s three largest school districts—Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago—have announced their departures within weeks of one another.
The reasons are not surprising, the hiring experts say: burnout, exhaustion, frustration.
In Sonoma County alone, an unusual number of crises from the wildfires to power outages and floods has contributed to a pattern of between nine to 12 superintendents out of 40 leaving in each of the last few years, or roughly 20 to 30 percent annually.
Kitamura’s story resonates in this context, because she is the kind of leader that most school boards are desperate to find, hire, and retain.
She has experience in nearly every position in school leadership, from teacher to counselor to administration—a trait that’s much less common in these days of career-changing programs. She has made tangible strides to provide students of color with equal access to strong teaching and is lauded for her communications prowess, two of the qualities recruiters say are most in demand.
She has successfully remade her district’s relationship with the city’s teachers’ union into a collaborative one. And she is an Asian-American woman leader where the top job is still dominated by white men.
Equity front and center, in large ways and small
Born in Yuba City, Calif., north of Sacramento, Kitamura is a 4th generation Japanese American. But she knows a lot about what it feels like to be treated like an outsider in one’s own country, an insight that underpins her approach to the top school leadership job.
Her grandfather and three of his children, including her mother, were forced by the U.S. government into internment camps during the second World War. Her own childhood was marked by a mix of cultures. She was raised partly on a resettlement camp, where she learned Spanish from interacting with farmworkers from Mexico and spoke it fluently alongside English and Japanese.
School itself did not reflect this early experience with cultural fluency. Despite her language abilities, Kitamura was placed in the lower-tier “yellow house” reading group in early elementary school, even as other pupils were sorted into other color groups that, she realized only much later, directly corresponded to stereotypes about ethnicity and skin color.
In college, Kitamura majored in agriculture and worked a few years in production. But drawn to the teaching profession with the goal of undoing for others some of the damage her family had experienced in the school system, she pursued a teaching credential in agriculture from California State University, Chico, and began a decades-long education career.
She came to the Santa Rosa city district in 2013 to head up curriculum and instruction, rose to the associate superintendent job, and became the superintendent in 2016.
In the K-12 universe, the term “equity” is now used so frequently that it’s potentially in danger of becoming meaningless, but there is no question that Kitamura has the track record to claim it as her legacy.
All students must now take the challenging A-G coursework sequence needed for entry into the University of California, the state’s top-tier public university system, rather than being tracked into low-level classes. The district’s Integrated Wellness Center, set up in the wake of the Tubbs fire, provides free counseling and social services to students and their families.
But it’s the smaller details that add fullness and detail to the picture. It’s been longstanding policy to have a Spanish language interpreter at public meetings to serve the high proportion of native Spanish speaking parents, for example, but Kitamura has flipped that around. Now, some parent meetings are conducted in Spanish, with an English interpreter.
Herrington, the elected Sonoma County superintendent, recalled how he tapped Kitamura to take a look at a coloring book for young children the county was developing with the school nurses’ association to explain what COVID-19 was, and why students wouldn’t be able to go to school for a while. It was Kitamura who recommended changing an illustration of a sick child with Asian features. She worried that it might fuel anti-Asian sentiment in the county.
“I just appreciated it so much, and the nurses appreciated it so much,” Herrington said. “It’s that kind of perspective that someone brings to the table that I’m afraid we are going to lose.”
‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’
The superintendency is not a job for the faint-hearted even on the best of days, and it’s been especially challenging in the past few years.
It now takes just one ill-placed Tweet to produce a pandemonium of confusion and outrage. School funding revisions, like California’s recent Local Control Funding Formula, have added mountains of new paperwork and requirements.
Labor relations nationally have shifted dramatically: The Red for Ed movement and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus case, which prohibited unions from charging bargaining fees of nonmembers, has put striking back in teachers’ unions toolbox. In Santa Rosa, before a renaissance in labor-management relations, it had contributed to protracted negotiations and scores of grievances from teachers.
And finally, in a profession with an incredible lack of either gender or racial diversity, being a woman of color in the field can carry a not-so-invisible tax both in terms of treatment and salary, which Kitamura has also run up against.
When the school board proposed a generous raise in 2019, some in the community responded angrily, given the single-digit increase teachers received in their prior contract. Kitamura suggested in an interview with the local newspaper that sexism and racism were subtexts in the discussion, resulting in what’s more or less the only real PR blowup she’s had while leading the district.
It’s a testament to her diplomacy that despite those ugly moments, she and the Santa Rosa Teachers Association turned a corner after two and a half years of acrimony.
Will Lyon, the outgoing union president, can pinpoint the day in 2019 things started to change. On vacation in Hawaii, Kitamura had texted him a picture of a gorgeous sunset—and a message that ran to the effect of: We’re going to make this right.
Kitamura remembers telling herself: I am not going to spend the next three years living in this hell with labor.
“And we just started talking to each other, and when we calmed down, they calmed down,” she said. “And the rest is history.”
Crises like the pandemic can be the proverbial straw on a superintendent’s back
On the heels of those challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has been, in a sense, the most difficult one of all. Unlike even the county’s devastating wildfires, things haven’t yet returned to normal. Instead, it’s been a constant drip-drip-drip of trouble.
Kitamura has been especially critical of the endless, conflicting mandates from state and federal agencies that have sometimes tied superintendents’ hands—or forced them to make what amount to consequential health decisions and to absorb all the political blowback. Her district’s plan for in-person schooling is a good example.
The plan, hammered out with scores of stakeholders, is cautious; teachers aren’t required to teach in person until they’re fully vaccinated, and the hybrid elementary plan doesn’t require synchronous teaching on remote learning days. But Kitamura says the data bear out this approach. Two elementary schools, she noted, each recently had a COVID-19 case, but the district’s planning meant that each instance disrupted only one cohort of students in the school.
Nevertheless, as in other districts, the decision has generated considerable second guessing. During the district’s late April and May board meetings, the public comments portions were, inevitably, dominated by parents unhappy with the district’s hybrid learning plan.
“The lack of acknowledgement that every surrounding district has done this already is mindblowing,” said one angry parent who has demanded a return to five-day-a-week schooling. “It is a false choice that we have to decide between safety and in-person schooling.”
For a superintendent whose leadership and judgment are implicitly being called into question, these are hard things to hear over and over but Kitamura simply listens attentively, and then explains clearly why she’s chosen the path she has.
“It could have been worse,” she says a few days later, referencing the screaming matches and interrupted board meetings that have gone viral elsewhere.
In truth, the comparison to other districts’ plans isn’t quite fair. Many of Santa Rosa City’s surrounding districts serve just elementary students, while Santa Rosa serves secondary students, where scheduling and class-switching raise many more challenges. There are liability issues to consider, too, because unlike other states, California has not granted districts blanket immunity from pandemic-related tort claims. And the cadence of federal and state agency recommendations, and what it actually takes to move school systems, do not match.
Mostly when I’m emailing her or texting her, it’s, 'Are you OK? Are you sleeping?’ Because it is like a hit to the gut over and over again.
One of Santa Rosa’s side agreements with the union, for example, inscribes six feet of social distancing in classrooms into the contract. It took the district a month and a half to complete. Just days after it was approved, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its recommendations downward to three feet of social distancing.
Kitamura doesn’t complain, but, her supporters say, the stress takes a toll.
“Mostly when I’m emailing her or texting her, it’s, ’Are you OK? Are you sleeping?’ Because it is like a hit to the gut over and over again,” said Laurie Fong, the president of the school board and an ally of Kitamura’s. “Because no matter how hard you try with everyone’s interests at heart … there is still somebody who’s unhappy and criticizing your decision.”
A new opportunity for hiring more women as superintendents?
Ultimately, Kitamura says, it’s not the community criticism that’s been the deciding factor. It’s that she doesn’t want to risk resenting either the job or parents or to be forced, as so many other superintendents are, to choose between work and family. She wants to continue to live nearby, with her mother.
“For me, I don’t want to become bitter. I don’t want to become angry about the people I love and adore, with a community I adore,” she said. “It’s better for me, just knowing how much I know about the community and schools, to let someone come in and have a fresh brain about it all.”
Succession in school districts is often highly political, but in Santa Rosa at least, Kitamura has helped select her successor, Anna Trunnell, the district’s current associate superintendent for human resources.
“I recruited the person who I knew was like minded and had the energy and who hasn’t had to deal with these crises. Because you’re going to be fresh and ready to go,” Kitamura said.
As in Santa Rosa, districts nationwide may have an opportunity to recruit and hire more women to enter the field as retirements file in—but that isn’t a guarantee, said Rachel White, an assistant professor of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University in Virginia, who has studied the composition of the superintendency.
“A lot of retirements in the profession means male retirements, mostly. This could be a really opportune time to diversify the superintendent gender balance,” she said.
“But at the same time, because of the nature of the pandemic, women are the ones taking care of their families, or their parents, or their children,” White continued. “The door feels like it’s been able to be opened, and yet [women] might not be able to walk through it.”
Kitamura, for her part, isn’t planning to rest on her laurels either. She’s applied to be a superintendent in residence for a University of California Berkeley graduate program in educational leadership, due to its focus on equity and social justice.
And yet Fong, the school board president, suggests that’s probably only a beginning. Kitamura is smart, she’s passionate, and she’s experienced. There’s a lot she can do next.
“I can’t help but think, based on nothing whatsoever, that she’s got options,” said Fong. “And why would anyone want to hit their head against the wall forever?”
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2021 edition of Education Week as A Lauded Superintendent Retires After Years of Crises: ‘I Don’t Want to Become Bitter’