ALBANY -- Schools Superintendent Marla Stephenson has announced she will retire after the 2013-14 school year. The timing of the decision gives the district a full year to recruit a new superintendent.
"I'm going to be 62 in December," she said. "I love what I do. And I just don't want to not love what I do. It's the right time, the district is in great shape with strong reserves, great staff and strong leadership throughout."
Stephenson just finished her fifth year leading the Albany Unified School District. Previously, she served as an assistant superintendent in the district as well as a principal at Albany Middle School. She has also been a teacher and a principal in other districts, having spent the past 14 years with the AUSD.
Stephenson acknowledged that a tumultuous year in the district, including molestation accusations against James Izumizaki that led to the popular Albany Middle School teacher committing suicide, took its toll on her.
"It took a lot out of me," Stephenson said. "It was a tragedy. You can't predict the kinds of things that come at you as a superintendent. But this one affected me. I have no qualms that I acted appropriately, that I did the right things for the kids and the district but I still bear the weight of it."
Stephenson grew up in Piedmont, attending Piedmont High School, and always knew she would get into education. You might think that means she was a perfect student, a teacher's pet. Stephenson said that's not even close to the truth.
"It's one of those things where I was not necessarily the most perfect student, nor was I the best behaved student," she said, declining to detail what kind of things earned her a trip to the principal's office.
"I really knew what it was like sitting on the other side of that desk," she said. "I have empathy for those kids who don't quite fit in the educational institutions and I've spent my entire life trying to broaden that shoe box that we call education for kids, just to broaden the educational horizons for everyone."
Stephenson began her career as a special-education teacher in Berkeley, later spending four years in St. Helena as an elementary school principal before coming to Albany.
Her tenure as superintendent has been marked by major budget problems as the combination of the recession and the state's massive cuts to education have sent California districts reeling. She is proud she was able to prevent cuts to AUSD student programs, but did have to cut staffing to the bone.
"I decimated our district office to make sure that the front line folks, our teachers, had what they needed to get the job done," Stephenson said. "We did not cut programs for kids, we did not (impose) furlough days or (cut) staff salaries. But the toll it took on our administration and our classified staff, support staff, they bore the burden of the budget cuts."
Specifically, "I cut secretarial staff throughout the district. The district office still has no secretarial staff," she said. "I cut custodial staff throughout the district. This district operates with two maintenance people for (about) 3,800 students.
Stephenson credited the community for approving a parcel tax to bridge the funding gap.
Stephenson is optimistic that at least the baseline funding for education from the state is increasing.
"The floor funding for 2012-13 is going to be more than we have experienced over the last five years," she said. "It's going to be equal to or better than we had for 07-08. I believe education will stay at the forefront with our governor's leadership."
Nonetheless, "No matter how you slice the pie, we still are woefully underfunded in California for public education," she said. "I hope to continue to help California and other states to put their money where their mouth is. There is not an elected official that won't say education is a priority for them, but as far as funding that priority, we don't see that commitment."
Stephenson will get married in September. She has two children and four grandchildren, with a fifth on the way. The Lafayette resident doesn't anticipate walking away from education. In fact, she said she expects to "get right back into it," possibly looking for interim administrative positions.
In the meantime, "It's going to be 12 months of hard work and the district will continue in its mission of continuous improvement," she said.