Quick Take:

New district chiefs are stepping in at the San Lorenzo Valley Unified, Live Oak, Mountain Elementary and Happy Valley Union Elementary school districts this summer — four of the 10 public school districts in Santa Cruz County. The County Office of Education is offering extra support to ease the transition.

When the school year starts next fall, nearly half of Santa Cruz County’s public school districts will be under new leadership.

Four of 10 district superintendents are retiring this month, a remarkably high turnover that spells a changing of the guard, of sorts, in the landscape of local education. New district chiefs are stepping in at San Lorenzo Valley Unified, Live Oak Unified, Mountain Elementary and Happy Elementary School District.

Departing superintendents and their expected replacements are as follows:

  • San Lorenzo Valley Unified: Laurie Bruton, 63, is retiring. Her replacement is set to be announced Wednesday.
  • Live Oak: Lorie Chamberland, 59, is retiring. Daisy Morales, assistant superintendent of educational services at Salinas City Elementary School District, is incoming as the next superintendent.
  • Happy Valley Elementary: Michelle McKinny, 62, is retiring. Michelle Stewart, assistant superintendent of education services at Scotts Valley Unified, has been selected as the next superintendent.
  • Mountain Elementary: Diane Morgenstern, 61, is retiring. Megan Tresham, the principal at Cypress High School, has been selected as the next superintendent.

New superintendents are set take the reins in July.

A shakeup in local school district leadership mirrors a trend of educator retirements across California, the full extent of which is still coming into focus. In February, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System cited surging retirement rates over the 2020-21 school year that appeared on trend for the second highest year to date, behind 2009-10.

“It’s been a very, very challenging year for everybody,” said Faris Sabbah, Santa Cruz County’s superintendent of schools. “And for those who have the opportunity to be able to take retirement at this point, this seemed like a really good time.”

A typical year might see one district superintendent retire across Santa Cruz County, according to Sabbah. None retired last year. Having four leave at once, he said, is far outside the norm.

Why they are leaving

Two superintendents — Bruton and McKinny — told Lookout they had planned to retire in 2020, but held off due to concerns they would be leaving their districts without steady leadership in the throes of the pandemic.

“I really extended my career another year to finish out this year and get everybody, kind of, back into normalcy,” McKinny said.

The other departing superintendents said they are retiring earlier than planned. Chamberland cited health issues exacerbated by the stress of the job this past year. And Morgenstern said she is retiring earlier than expected after turning 60 and having a reorientation, of sorts, of her priorities.

Easing the transition

To help smooth the transition, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education is doing something a little unusual, according to Sabbah: offering school boards the option to bring in experienced mentors to help coach their new leaders — paid for by the COE.

“We just want to make sure the support is in place,” said Sabbah. “I think having somebody to help mentor and support them with the job would be a positive thing.”

Three districts have already announced their new superintendent picks, and the fourth — SLVUSD — is expected to unveil the incoming superintendent at a meeting Wednesday. The three known incoming superintendents each tout lengthy careers in education, but none has previously led a school district.

Morgenstern, the retiring superintendent at Mountain Elementary, said she is confident she is leaving the small school district in good hands. She said, given the moment, ensuring a smooth transition is more important than ever.

“This is 40% of our superintendent corps,” Morgenstern said, “and there needs to be thoughtful onboarding of these four leaders so that they feel an integrated part of the team.”

Follow Nick Ibarra on: Twitter. Ibarra has a track record of reporting that has shone light into almost every corner of Santa Cruz County. Raised in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he came to journalism from...