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On the heels of his ‘most challenging year by far,’ Huntington Beach school chief retires

Huntington Beach City School District students have faced two closures this year.

The first came in March with stay-at-home orders to contain the spread of coronavirus. That one is temporary – although questions remain about exactly how and when schools can reopen.

The second, however, is permanent. Via a virtual meeting in April, HBCSD board members voted to shutter Perry Elementary due to the district’s falling enrollment numbers.

In the midst of a roller-coaster year, Gregory Haulk, HBCSD superintendent since 2012, announced he would retire at the end of July.

Controversially, Perry has teetered on the chopping block for five years. Half of its students come from low-income households in an otherwise affluent district. Saying Perry’s closure would “disproportionately affect” Latino students, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has threatened legal action.

Also a contentious vote, HBCSD trustees decided in January to stop accepting out-of-district transfers at the school year’s end – ejecting about 500 students.

That move allows the district to become “community-funded,” an elite status freeing it from dependence on the state’s per-student payments. Districts that receive enough money from property taxes to cover their own expenses can stop contributing to a pool shared by all California schools.

Starting in March, the district began laying off 29 teachers – as well as administrators and support staff. Those reductions are expected to save more than $1 million annually, whittling down a $6.8 million budget deficit.

In an interview, Haulk discussed the district’s challenges and strengths, and his reasons for bowing out at such a tough juncture.

Question: First off, why now?

Answer: I’ve been in education for more than 30 years, and this has been my most challenging year by far. But that’s not the reason I’m leaving right now. I looked down the road and saw that I wanted to retire in two or three years. And I thought, the district needs someone who is going to see these changes through for at least the next five years. It needs continuity. This is what’s best for the district – and it’s not so bad for me, either.

Q: What’s next on your horizon?

A. I don’t want to start another superintendency at age 58. My first goal is to try to get healthier and live with less stress.

Q: So the stress was a major consideration?

A: You can’t underestimate how important it is to plan meals and eat healthy. I try, but the best laid plans usually don’t work. I find myself eating a not so healthy lunch at my desk at 3 p.m. I also look forward to just sleeping through the night without a bunch of stressors, and waking up and going to the gym.

Q: Has the district completed its layoffs?

A: Yes, people have been notified. It’s painful. You are dealing with livelihoods. The state’s paperwork is very formal. It almost sounds like the teacher did something wrong, when that’s not at all true. It’s a mathematical computation based on seniority.

Q: When will the district officially become “community-funded,” neither sending property taxes to the state nor collecting per-student money from it?

A: As early as September. Hopefully, this will provide us more stability during volatility in state funding caused by coronavirus.

Q: Is the closure of Perry a done deal?

A: Perry is closed and will remain closed. It was our smallest elementary school, and getting smaller every year.

Q: Perry supporters complain that allowing students to transfer to other schools in the district created a kind of white flight, cutting enrollment.

A. We have always had open-enrollment practices. I get that people are upset. It was a fabulous little school. But we’d reached the point where Perry had as many combo classes as regular classes. When you’ve got just 45 first graders, you have to put 15 of them in a combo class with second graders. Perry indeed had the biggest percentage of Hispanic kids. Those kids will now be welcomed at other high-performing schools.

Q: Will kids be back in classrooms this fall?

A: We want to open up as close to regular as possible. But things change very quickly. A week ago, that looked like a real possibility. But now bars and beaches are closing again (due to spikes in coronavirus cases).

Q: Might you split the school day – with half the students coming in the morning, and half in the afternoon?

A:  I’ve worked in districts where we tried having “early birds” and “later gators” so classes could be smaller. Sounded like a great idea, but every parent wanted to be an early bird. And how do you sanitize a classroom between the a.m. and p.m. shifts? Even if there’s a one-hour break, that would take one heck of a custodial group. And then what would daycare look like? Parents have to go back to work for the economy to recover.

Q: Here it is July, school starts in two months, and no one knows what will happen.

A: You almost wish the Department of Education would just say: “This is what you should do.” Everyone is second-guessing everyone else. Whatever the case, there will have to be a distance-learning option for parents uncomfortable with their children returning to school, as well as options for teachers with health vulnerabilities. I think we’re going to see some teachers retire because they don’t feel comfortable coming in.

Q: Did personal safety issues influence your decision to retire?

A: That is not at all the reason I’m retiring, but there is absolutely some relief in it. And I am not going to miss the challenge of trying to keep masks on students.

Q: Has the district started looking for your replacement?

A: It is conducting a full-blown search. This is an incredibly desirable district, so there will be a huge number of fabulous candidates. (The interim superintendent will be Greg Magnuson, formerly with the Buena Park School District and now a financial consultant for HBCSD.)

Source: Orange County Register

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