Students at Weed Elementary School will have a new principal next year. After four years in the position, Alisa Cummings is moving on, and Jon Ray is moving in.
Ray comes from the Bishop Unified School District where he served as superintendent. He will step into Cummings’ shoes in the dual role of superintendent and principal for the Weed Union Elementary School District.
“Weed will miss Alisa,” said Board of Trustees President Debbie Goltz. “She has been a great instructional leader, the best I’ve worked with ... But we’re also thrilled to have Jon. He brings a depth of knowledge and fresh eyes, and a point of view that maybe we don’t have. He has connections in Sacramento he can tap into,” Goltz said in an interview in Weed last week.
The board and a group of stakeholders in the hiring process vetted Ray “from a great pool of candidates,” she said.
“Teachers, staff, and parents all weighed in. We chose Jon, for one thing, because he knows and loves Weed, he’s a product of Weed Elementary, his mom worked (at the school), his dad taught at the College of the Siskiyous. Jon has an appreciation, and respect, for Weed.”
Ray won’t begin his new job until July 1 but he has already begun reaching out to faculty and staff despite social distancing. “I’m not a stranger, it helps growing up here and knowing the families already,” he said during a separate interview.
He said he’s also following the struggles in Sacramento as legislators create guidelines for re-opening schools under the restrictions of COVID-19. He said the pandemic is the number-one challenge right now.
“How do we re-open? What’s it going to be like getting 5 year-olds to wear masks in class? Implementing social distancing for 275 kids is unprecedented.”
Another side to the array of problems facing districts concerns the next budget.
“The governor released a tentative budget with a 10% cut to education. Yet they’re (the California Department of Education) talking about restricting class size to 14 students for social distancing. Currently, classes can go as high as 30 students for grades 4-8. Also, there could be no ‘social recess.’ Instead, every kid would have his or her own ball or whatever. Then there are the students who ride the bus to school. They will have to be kept at a distance from one another.”
Ray said these changes alone mean more teachers, more buses and drivers, more equipment.
“How do you take the necessary steps to bring kids safely back, which costs more than in the past, and deal with 10% drop in the budget?” Ray asked rhetorically.
These are things the new administrator is working on now. But he said he also believes the tentative budget put forward by the governor last month was part of the political process, meant to generate reaction. The actual budget may have no education cuts.
“I think the governor expects the federal government would see the push-back to cuts and would realize the state needs help,” he said.
During the interview, Ray often spoke seriously about the challenges the district faces, with the far-away look of a person roaming across the many-sided challenges ahead of him. But he often broke into an engaging smile, and just as often let loose a quick laugh.
He talked about his career, about half of which has been in less-populated locations. He talked about what the elementary school means for rural towns like Weed.
“School can be everything for small kids in rural areas. There aren’t as many kid activities and social gatherings we crave as humans. For some kids, not going to school means they aren’t getting the social back and forth they had before,” said Ray.
“Research on distance learning shows it doesn’t work for the majority. Kids need the interaction they get with other kids and teachers at school.
“We really want to re-open as close to normal as possible.”
As a principal and superintendent for the past 19 years, Ray has had to deal with difficult situations. From 2007-2009 when he held both positions at the Colfax Elementary School District, Ray was hired to make changes.
“The district was ranked in the 600s on the Academic Performance Index,” Ray said, explaining that the index was a measure used by the “No Child Left Behind” program to induce districts to raise academic standards. If districts failed to improve, they faced losing control to the government. This, in turn, would result in interviews of an entire teaching staff with half of them let go.
Though the No Child program itself has since been replaced, the Colfax district at the time brought Ray in to prevent triggering the consequences.
“I was hired to keep (the government) out (of the district). I had to make big changes, which upset some people. In the first year, though, we had a 70-point increase in the API score. The next year, we raised it to 810, which was considered ‘high performance,’ and people were happy.”
At another district, the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District, Ray was superintendent between 2014 and 2019. The Hoopa Valley Tribe and Yurok Tribe, with the American Civil Liberties Union, accused Ray of failing to show how money was spent that had been marked for at-risk students.
Ray defended his actions in a news account when he noted that a majority of students in the district fell into at-risk categories.
The Weed Press spoke with two reporters from the Klamath-Trinity area about the complex issue, which was not concluded to the satisfaction of the tribes and ACLU. Both reporters believed there was a disconnect between the superintendent and district board, and the tribes and ACLU. One of the reporters, Natalya Estrada, who writes for the North Coast Journal of Politics, People and Art, said this about Ray:
“In his mind I believe he’s under the impression he did everything he could for the greater good. That every student at the school was in need of those funds. So it depends on who you ask.”
Ray was quoted as saying, “The county and state (Department of Education) sided with the tribes and ACLU, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to give me the funding to do this.”
In the Weed interview, Ray further explained. “95% of (students in the) district were high risk. My point was, was I supposed to help the 95% and not the other 5% (with those funds)? How do I do that?”
Ray said that he was not fined, and that the state agreed with the predicament he presented. Two years later, he said, the requirement was removed.
Asked about issues he dealt with at previous districts, Goltz said Ray made the board aware of them at the beginning of the interview process.
“We had retained a hiring consultant who reported back to us. We heard from former superintendents and board members, and staff at various districts telling us what an outstanding candidate we had.
“The (Weed) board is very satisfied with the answers we received.”