Mary McLeod Day honors outgoing superintendent

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By Carol A. Clark

Mary McLeod Day held Friday to honor the widely popular superintendent included a community picnic at Fuller Lodge. Students across the district performed one last time for her before she retires in July.

No one wants McLeod to leave but she has said it’s time following four decades in the educational field.

Administrators, staff, students and community members turned out to say goodbye and thank McLeod for her service.

She agreed to run the district for one year after James Anderson retired last July to allow time to find his replacement.

Business Services Manager John Wolfe worked through challenging financial times with McLeod during the last year.

“Mary would have been a great statistician or CPA – she demonstrated those qualities when she did all the calculation on the new funding formula that no other superintendent in the state did, and she blew away the Legislature with her analysis and data on the new formula,” Wolfe said. “I will miss being able to discuss financial information with her and also not having her financial prowess here when we have future budget challenges to deal with and fix. It has been a challenging year, but she has made it bearable with all her great financial skills. Thank you Mary.”

A couple of things come to mind that should be included in a tribute to McLeod, Director of Student Services Rick Mai said.

“One is the role she played in getting our school bond passed this year,” Mai said. “Her leadership was clearly instrumental in the organization’s and the district’s efforts to get the information about the bond out to the community. Mary should also be recognized for her time and effort in communicating and working with the various legislative committees regarding the impact that the proposed ‘Funding Formula’ would have had on the students of Los Alamos. Her efforts led to some critical amendments that would have at least lessened the impact on our district. Hopefully, those amendments will still be attached if and when the ‘Formula’ gets proposed again.”

McLeod said she had a lot to learn about the way the LAPS budget compared with other districts in the state.

“I spent hours studying the budgets of all the other districts, comparing LAPS with districts that were similar in size, and putting together a case for LAPS with the legislature,” she said. “We are so very fortunate to receive the additional $8 million through LANL, yet this was an ‘elephant’ in the room when it came to our financial picture in the eyes of legislators.”

Trying to put all this in perspective, so that everyone could see that LAPS faced the same challenges as other districts took some careful analysis, she said. “Our low poverty rate was ‘held against us,” McLeod said. “In the end, the work paid off and the Legislative Education Study Committee agreed to insert a ‘hold harmless clause’ in the House Bill. Then, thanks to Rep. Jeanette Wallace, the timeline for this hold harmless clause was extended to 10 years.”

Though the bill failed this year, the work for “sufficient” funding will continue, McLeod said.

“I think my research will provide a good basis for the new superintendent as he works to keep LAPS funding through the State Equalization Guarantee formula sufficient,” she said.

Following on the heels of the funding formula, concern came in the reduction in the “unit value” and thus a reduction in the district’s operating budget for this year (2008-09) and for next (2009-2010), she said.

“We faced a $2.5 million shortfall,” McLeod said. “A hardworking budget committee, with representation from all our stakeholder groups, was able to identify $1.5 million in expenditure reductions. This committee and the board agree that we needed to form a long-range financial planning committee to develop a five year budget. This committee has been formed and we will begin the work in a few weeks.”

Assistant Superintendent Kate Thomas has been by McLeod’s side throughout this entire last year since McLeod stepped in to lead the district.

“Mary McLeod brings to every problem sharp intellect, great wisdom, and an emotional intelligence, which allows all parties involved to progress to a good end,” Thomas said. “She never loses sight of the main purpose for our work together, which is the well-being of our students. Working for her has been both a great learning experience and the most fun I’ve had in my professional life. Los Alamos has been lucky to have her and her family as part of our community life for the last 50 years. We will all miss her so.”

McLeod discussed what for her was the best part about being superintendent. “I have always been thankful for the wonderful education I received as a student in the Los Alamos Public Schools,” she said. “My family moved to Los Alamos when I was a freshman in high school and I was ‘light years’ behind the other students in my class. But in four short years, I caught up and was more than prepared for college and for life after high school.”

When McLeod was pursuing colleges, she met then superintendent of schools, Dr. C.W. Richards, and asked him to identify the colleges and universities that he trusted to prepare excellent teachers.

Richards suggested a university in Nebraska, and that’s where she went.

“Growing up, I was very fortunate to live across the street from the Smith family,” McLeod said. “Duane Smith was a neighbor, a friend and a role model for me. When he became our superintendent of schools, somewhere in the back of my mind I saw myself following in his footsteps.”

At that time, McLeod didn’t really think she’d be superintendent in Los Alamos, but being an educational leader who understood the learning process, cared about kids, and saw this position as one of service, was what “Smitty” embodied and what she remembered wanting to emulate.

“I am very grateful to the Los Alamos School Board, to the faculty and staff of LAPS and to the community for giving me this opportunity to serve and to give a little back in return for all I have received,” she said.

Principal Megan Lee of Pinon Elementary School described McLeod as “tremendously committed to this district.”

“Her efforts are commendable,” Lee said. “She is a great communicator and rolls up her sleeves and gets the work done. She has been a pleasure to work with and will be missed. I hope she enjoys some rest. It comes well deserved.”

The transition from Assistant Superintendent to Superintendent was the least challenging part of McLeod’s new position, she said, because she knew the system, the employees, the policies and procedures.

“I knew the work that needed to be done either by me or by my colleagues. I had great support and we didn’t miss a beat,” she said.

The number one aspect of being superintendent that McLeod will miss most, she said, is the people.

“This is a wonderful school district,” McLeod said. “There are so many outstanding staff members, all dedicated to making the district the best it can be for our students. Most districts struggle to get parent and community involvement but in Los Alamos, everyone cares about our schools. The County, LANL, local business people – all volunteer their resources and their expertise. I was so touched and humbled when the community stepped forward to support a tax increase when the economic future was looking grim. What a gift! I am also going to miss being an instructional leader. There has been a huge paradigm shift in education since I began my career in the early 60’s. Now we have valid and reliable research that we can use to direct the work we do with children. We are getting better and better because we know more about the way the brain works, the best practices to use in the classroom, the way to assess student progress in order to track individual learning. We are much more in tune with each and every student’s growth than we have ever been. I love being a part of the improvement process and I will really miss this.”

McLeod served as a mentor to new School Board President Joan Ahlers during the last year.

“Dr. Mary McLeod has been a tremendous asset to LAPS and the Los Alamos community for most of her life,” Ahlers said. “Dr. McLeod has been both mentor and friend to me. I will miss her dearly, but honestly believe that she has laid a great foundation so that we can continue to move forward with our new administrative team. Thank you Mary for all that you have done for LAPS, Los Alamos and me. Best wishes to you in your retirement!”

Facilities Coordinator Tom Littleton praised the superintendent for keeping meetings tight and timely.

“It became evident very early that Mary was adamant about starting meetings on time,” Facilities Coordinator Tom Littleton said. “Almost as important was the fact that if you were late you had to bring doughnuts to the next meeting! After we got by the doughnut issue she would cut through the chaff and get right on target with business. It was nice to know you weren’t wasting any time if you were in one of her meetings.”

School Board member Thelma Hahn recalled that McLeod was the teacher she was to observe when she came to apply for an art teaching position nearly 40 years ago.

“I was very impressed with her teaching style and her obvious respect for students," Hahn said. “Over the years, Mary and I have had many and varied experiences from working on graduate degrees , brainstorming, attending conferences and just having fun. In all situations, she has been a clear thinker, has a great sense of humor and possesses a keen mind. She’s tall enough to reach for the sky but always has her feet firmly on the ground!”

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 662-4185 ext. 25. Read her blog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.