In interviewing Superintendent of Alpine County Schools Jim Parsons that question was in the back of my mind, the result of a seminar on education in a large state university. There were five graduate students, all were principals working for advanced degrees that would qualify them to rise in school administration. Suddenly one asked the rest, "Why do you want to go into school administration?"
The responses were to improve the education of children or variations on that theme. They then turned to the fifth student who was from Southeast Asia, who said "I want a cushy job." To judge the nature of the school superintendent's position it's important to look at the preparation required and the responsibilities of the job and how well they are carried out.
Parsons was well prepared: he received his bachelor's degree and teaching credential from UC Riverside, his first master's degree from the University of the Redlands in counseling, his second master's degree from the University of La Vern and a doctorate in educational administration from Nova University in Florida. That was followed by teaching and administration experience in California schools including a private boarding school in Idyllwild, where he became headmaster, and three years at Selma, first as junior high school and elementary school principal and then as director of curriculum for the school district. He also served as a high school principal in Kerman, Calif.
When Parsons came to Alpine County in July 1988 he was well qualified to take over the reins of the school system. He was interviewed by the board of trustees' Jim Dice, Kate Harvey, Linda Shoshone, Ann McGinnes and Vaudeen Stevenson, who recommended hiring him.
But he soon found that the job was far from a cushy one for the community was in an uproar; the maelstrom was over dissatisfaction with its schools, principally its administration. Parsons recalls, "Nineteen families came to me over difficulties with their children's education." One of the chief administrators was fired, the other resigned. And in the school board election that followed 13 people ran for the four open seats. The successful candidates were Lynn Doyal, Cindy Stevens, Mary Wood, and I, with Vaudeen Stevenson continuing. Doyal was elected board president.
The current trustees are President Earl O'Neal and Walter Bell, Tony Holdridge and Mary Wood, all elected at-large and Beverly Caldera, elected by the Native American community. As school superintendent, Parsons answers to the board of trustees and as County Superintendent of the Alpine County Unified School District to the voters of the county.
Parsons' tenure over the past two decades has been quite smooth, although a couple of years ago there was turmoil.
It was mainly because of budget uncertainty due to increased insurance costs, a drop in enrollment with a decline in state funding and a sudden cut in the state budget.
The result was dismissal notices to two teachers followed by several board of trustee meetings packed with parents and other community members. One of the teachers currently works as a substitute and the other was employed by the county library.
At present funding is adequate although the future situation will depend on passage of the "Secure Rural Schools" legislation now in the U.S. House of Representatives. It would replace revenue lost from the decline in timber cutting.
Parsons has made a number of trips to Washington, D.C. to lobby legislators. The schools' financial officer is Janice Doyal.
While budgeting is always a concern Parsons feels that dealing with personnel is a major activity. Yet he stresses the importance of educating the young. "I believe," he said, "the learning period for 5 to 7-year olds is critical; if we miss it we struggle to make it up later." I would add that often it's too late.
So how have the county schools fared?
California will award its third Distinguished Schools Award and the graduation rate for Alpine students in Douglas High School is 98 percent. Almost all receive regular diplomas with a few the GED. Moreover, 50 percent of the graduates go on to higher education, either universities or community college. In large part this success reflects the long practice of monitoring the students' progress. Jim Holdridge, who is now retired, was responsible for tracking and counseling the high school students, and this is now done by Lori Pasqua. The Native American community's Indian Education Center plays an important role in this work. In addition Parsons keeps track of the students' grades and attendance.
Finally, it's clear that being a school administrator is not simply a cushy job.
Parsons and his wife Laura, a retired reading specialist, live in Mesa Vista in Woodfords.
Their daughter Maren received her bachelor's at UC Davis and her master's in Psychology from National University, and is studying for a certificate in child family counseling.