Photo: Superintendent Cynthia (Hall) Ranii visits the special education summer program at the NOVA site. With her are Daniel Gonzalez and aide Linda Tilton.
Reining in Rumors
'When in doubt, check it out,' says Superintendent Cynthia Ranii
By Michelle Alaimo
When the Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union High School District's board of directors interviewed candidates for the superintendent's job, the thing that made Cynthia Ranii stand out was her reputation as a communicator.
It didn't hurt that she was pretty adept with a yo-yo, either. It's a skill an administrator coming into the district just might need. During the last academic year, the district certainly had its ups and downs.
Although both Los Gatos and Saratoga high schools boast high academic achievement and an extremely high percentage of students who go on to college, last year saw some disturbing problems as well.
A survey of Los Gatos students by the Community Against Substance Abuse showed an alarming increase in drug use which has some parents pushing for a drug-testing policy. At Saratoga High School, a school prank resulted in a long and divisive debate about school rules and discipline that ended up in a judge's chambers. A scandal over cheating on a national test brought the school widespread and unwanted publicity.
Ranii says it is her experience at bringing people together in open communication that she'll rely on to begin the healing process and to move the district into a direction of improved communication.
Although she whimsically listed her ability with a yo-yo as one of her job skills on her résumé, in fact, doing yo-yo tricks is one of the ways she relaxes. She has a collection of more than 40 yo-yos of all styles and types. She always keeps a yo-yo in her desk ready to "walk the dog" or go "around the world."
Of the drug problems that must be addressed and the healing process that must begin, Ranii says: "It's a time that will draw upon really good communication skills, team building and trust building, and I feel very confident that we can turn the corner from those issues and not bury them, but learn from them."
Sheila McCabe, assistant principal at Fullerton Union High School, where Ranii was principal from 1995 until coming to the Los Gatos-Saratoga district, says her former boss can deliver. "You always feel like she is willing to listen," McCabe says. "She constantly communicated using two-way communication."
Ranii inherited a difficult situation at Fullerton Union High School in Southern California because the former principal left midyear; parents, staff and teachers believed that things were in constant upheaval, McCabe says. "[Ranii] was able to come in and utilize her skills to bring the staff together," she added.
The new superintendent replaces Tod Likins, who retired June 30 after serving seven years in the post. Ranii, whose résumé includes a five-year stint in the Peace Corps, will earn $100,000 a year.
Ranii, who started July 1, has begun working on methods for opening up communication lines between the board and the community. She wants to make sure from the beginning of the school year that policies and rules are clearly communicated. Following last spring's streaking incident, administrators invoked a punishment they said was well-understood by students but which some parents and students said took them by surprise. Ranii says the two school principals have agreed on a rule for both campuses that allows zero tolerance for pranks. This rule, as well as other policies, will be mailed to parents in August, along with a memo from Ranii. "We want to make it clear that the district will not tolerate pranks," she says.
She encourages parents to attend board meetings, beginning with the one on Aug. 19 at 6:30 p.m, at the SHS library where board members will vote on a policy regarding academic integrity.
Other issues she is addressing as she gears up for the new school year are financing for facilities repair and technology issues.
She is also looking for ways she can build a strong link with the community, parents and students.
Mailings are just one tool Ranii uses to keep in touch with parents, students and staff, McCabe says of her former boss. At Fullerton Union High School, Ranii held leadership meetings twice a month with department chairs and other teacher representatives to help make decisions. Ranii could also be seen on campus during lunchtime, dancing or performing yo-yo tricks with the students, McCabe says.
"I want to stay visible and in touch with campuses directly," Ranii says. "I also think it's important to stay in touch with the community."
By staying in close contact with the community, McCabe says, Ranii is able to stop problems before they start. Ranii says she tries to foresee issues that could become a problem and then work proactively to resolve them before they get out of hand.
The superintendent believes listening is the key communication skill she uses. Ranii says she wants to answer everyone's questions regarding school district concerns. "If in doubt, check it out," she says to emphasize her intention to be available.
Ranii, who collects not only yo-yos but Smokey the Bear memorabilia, has worked in education for 20 years in a variety of district and campus positions.
Prior to her two-year stint at Fullerton, she was at Sonora High School for three years. She also spent six years working in the Fullerton Joint Union High School District as an administrator of instructional services, director of grants development and a coordinator of alternative and continuing education.
On June 30, her final day as principal at Fullerton, Ranii's son, Anthony,19, a sophomore at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., drove her to Los Gatos from Southern California so she could start her new job as superintendent the next morning.
Ranii says she doesn't mind change at all. "It's a very busy time in my life--changing locations, changing jobs, and my daughter is getting married," Ranii says. Her daughter, Melina, a 21-year-old senior at UCLA, will be married Sept. 19.
Ranii, who is divorced, says she is excited to be in the Bay Area because it will allow her to do a variety of activities that she loves, such as traveling, biking, gardening and golf.
Ranii is currently staying with friends but hopes to find a place to live in the Los Gatos or Saratoga area by the beginning of August, and says she looks forward to the coming year.
Being involved in education is very worthy work, Ranii says. And she looks at her new job as particularly special because she learned she had been chosen for the job on May 21, just two days before her 50th birthday.
"We were looking for an individual who could fit and work in our community," school board president Ron Adolphson says. The board began the search for a new superintendent in January. Teachers, parents, staff, students and the board were all involved in the interview process.
In March, a four-person team visited Fullerton for a day to interview faculty, staff, and students about Ranii. The team then came back and reported to the board and advisory committee, Adolphson says. Ranii also came to Los Gatos twice for interviews with the board.
He says during the interview, Ranii said one thing in particular that stood out for him: "The parent is coming from the love of that child, and we move from there." The statement was in response to a question concerning how to handle an upset parent, and when she made it, Adolphson says, he knew she should be the new superintendent. The board met with the advisory committee immediately after and decided that Ranii was the best "fit" for the job.