, Rohnert Park-Cotati Unified School District’s new superintendent, who will replace Barbara Vrankovich July 1, doesn’t beat around the bush. Though he planned to retire in his old district, he left because he had enough of the politics, he said.
Haley moved St. Helena, the wealthy town of about 6,000 people nestled in the Napa Valley in 2004, after serving as superintendent of schools in Sebastopol, where he was the target of a “no confidence” vote by teachers.
Sources describe Haley as a former military man who is ambitious, energetic, straightforward, entrepreneurial — even a “rising star” in California education, as one former colleague said. He moved to St. Helena at the behest of then superintendent Allan Gordon, whom Haley called a mentor, to serve as assistant superintendent.
“Everything was going great for five years ... then the power structure in St. Helena became disenchanted with the school board,” Haley said.
What happened next, in 2009, was a recall election of the governing board, prompted by a closed session deal in which Gordon, months before retiring, received a healthy severance package of $180,000. The payout angered a faction of the wealthy population there, who felt he didn’t deserve it because he was already retiring. Haley was then promoted to superintendent, which further incensed what sources called the “newbies” in town.
“They wanted to do a formal search, and even though they said I would be the lead candidate, I decided to put in my resignation,” Haley said. “The search, and all the politics, was certainly one of my reasons for leaving.”
Teachers and colleagues said Haley was in an impossible spot — the politics got ugly and he was caught in the crossfire.
“During the turmoil, the teachers here did a vote of confidence and he got 91 percent approval,” said Dan Boyett, president of the St. Helena Teacher’s Association, who has been with the district for 20 years. “Frankly, it’s our district’s loss and your district’s gain.”
Boyett, who called Haley the best out of the last five superintendents at St. Helena Unified, said under Haley’s watch, standardized test scores went up, district attendance soared, students and teachers flocked to district area and stayed.
“We really wanted him to stay,” Boyett said. “He pretty much ran our district for seven years — during which he started competitive, innovative programs and he also attracted some of the best teachers in the state here.”
“He participated in the community, went to athletic events, and just jumped right in and got involved. He is really good at human relations, he has extensive curriculum knowledge and he puts everybody else first,” said Cindy Warren, who was the board president in St. Helena before it was recalled. “What happened was ugly, it destroyed our community, and [Haley] was just the whipping post. He remained professional throughout the whole thing.”
"I remember that in lines, he always let everybody else go first — that says a lot about his character," Warren said.
Haley, who lives in Windsor with his wife and four kids, said he knows Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified has its share of budget woes and he understands the hard place the teachers and the board is in right now — in the throws of impasse and mediation.
“Honestly, every district has their problems; I see it as an opportunity to make it better,” Haley said.
Haley on a recent morning addressed a slew of school issues that surfaced at a May 10 board meeting, during which a report from a 23-member Community Advisory Committee organized by Vrankovich, aired long-suspected concerns about systemic district problems.
— including declining enrollment, a rash of local school closures, swelling class sizes, the threat of a shorter school year, unprecedented interdistrict transfers, strife between the board and the teacher’s union over labor negotiations and a looming state takeover — largely stem from lack of community awareness about special programs that are offered here and state and county budget takeaways.
Haley laid out a plan to tackle the issues; many of which he spearheaded in St. Helena. He acknowledged much of his work will take longer than a year — the contract Haley is currently under.
“I believe I have a lot to offer,” Haley said. “I am committed to working with the district … and I’m interested in long-term success.”
Haley, 47, is incredibly accessible and enthusiastic. He returned calls for an interview in less than 10 minutes, made time in his hectic schedule immediately for a sit-down and clearheadedly outlined a recipe for success for the district, despite just being formally announced last week.
“We’ve got to stop closing schools,” Haley said. “Anther concern is the enrollment numbers; we have got to keep the children who live here in our district and attract new people. We have ask parents what they think — what’s important to them in terms of keeping their kids here.”
“I also understand class sizes are a huge issue; we have to address that problem,” Haley said. “In Sonoma County, so much mobility takes place because town are so close to one another — we have to create a long-term plan to reduce class sizes here and keep our children here.”
Haley said branding special programs and beginning new ones that will draw students here is also important.
“I’ve heard we have a great art program at the high school, let’s look at how we can give it a name that stands out, like Tech High did,” he said.
Haley spouted out ideas like he’d been thinking about them for months.
In St. Helena, Haley championed a K-12 international baccalaureate program, one that he said he’s interested in exploring here. He also had ideas of starting a Future Farmers of America program as well as expanding arts and sports programs, to name a few.
“Under Dr. Haley’s leadership, our district definitely improved,” Boyett said.
Haley also said communication is a huge issue. Vrankovich agreed.
“I think in order to be successful, one has to be informed — that includes the teachers and administration, the students, parents and the whole community,” he said.
He said he’s interested in starting up a Superintendent’s Council and holding regular meetings in the community to get feedback on what’s working and what needs improvement, such as a district-wide school summit that would provide a platform to celebrate students and exchange ideas. When asked about that could be televised and archived, he rattled off the cost in a heartbeat — $80.
He said he’s “absolutely” willing to look at do that.
“I’m used to being televised,” he said. “I am a big advocate for transparency and working openly.”
Haley also stressed the importance of working with the current board and teachers equally, despite the current disagreement over wages and benefits.
“I’m committed to bringing the school board and the teachers together to work through any problems,” he said. “That’s what good leaders are for.”
Haley said another big reason he chose Rohnert Park over the six other districts that were hiring locally is so he wouldn’t have to uproot his kids, one of which is graduating high school next year. Haley has four children, ages 10, 11, 14 and 16, and his wife is a second grade teacher at Windsor Creek Elementary.
Haley is salaried at $140,000 per year — $25,000 less than Vrankovich's.
Haley also addressed the issue of not having as varied a background as Vrankovich, who serves as the district’s lawyer, human resources representative and public information person.
“Barbara and I have very similar backgrounds in public relations and human resources,” Haley said. “I’m not a lawyer, but we have very experienced staff here, who I’m going to look at.”
The Cotati-Rohnert Park Governing Board, who admittedly got started on a search for a superintendent late, voted in favor of him 5-0.
Haley said Tuesday that he was beginning to make his rounds to each school to meet teachers and has already had informal conversations to get to know the board.
“He has very positive goals and aspirations — he’s taking on a huge challenge,” said trustee Marc Orloff. “He saw our challenges right away and saw them as an opportunity.”
"In looking into his background, I found that he had strong support from teachers, experience in dealing with fiscal issues and a strong reputation of reaching out to the public," said board president Ed Gilardi. "He also had a lot of new ideas, which was important to me."
Trustee Karyn Pulley said one of the things that sold her on Haley was his candid demeanor.
“He’s bright, personable, and he’s already made himself accessible to the community,” Pulley said. “He already started with his transition. He’s talking about goals and developing more resources for our kids — he knows we have our challenges, but he sees it as an opportunity to bring new life here.”
“We’ve been in such dire financial strains for the past several years, and we’ve lost track of our vision,” said trustee Andrew Longmire. “[Haley] has the tools to help us reinvent ourselves, and help us put a roadmap together for the future of our district.”
“He also has been to our website, and he’s noticed some of its weaknesses. He wants to help showcase all the great programs we have here in our district and help market it,” Longmire added. “I think he is going to greatly improve relations with our teachers; he’s great at listening and collaborating with youth sports groups and cities.”
"There's no exact formula for success, every district is different, and I'm excited to work with this one," Haley said.