Michele Ellson
Kirsten Vital

Photo courtesy of Capistrano Unified School District.

Updated at 10:13 a.m. Monday, June 23

Alameda schools Superintendent Kirsten M. Vital is leaving the Island to run the Capistrano Unified School District in San Juan Capistrano. A contract is expected to be approved by that district's board on Wednesday, the Southern California district announced Thursday.

Vital's five-and-a-half year tenure overseeing the Island's public schools has been marked by a list of accomplishments that includes the passage of a parcel tax that brought millions of dollars in funding to the district as state funding was cut, the creation of a host of innovative school programs, the introduction of programs aimed at raising test scores and reducing problematic behavior and the drafting of the district's first comprehensive facilities plan in half a century.

But her tenure was also marked by strife - with Alameda's teacher's union, with parents of poorly performing schools who feared she intended to close them and move charters in, and some of the members of the school board she served.

Vital told a reporter Friday that the new district is the right place for her family. She and her husband recently adopted a baby.

"There is a time when a superintendent just knows it is time. Capistrano is the right place for me and my family at this time," said Vital, who said she was honored to be chosen and that she'll miss Alameda Unified. "They are an incredible, high performing school district and I am looking forward to the new opportunity."

The Orange County district announced its selection of Vital just as Alameda schools leaders are set to decide whether to put a bond to pay for some of the fixes and upgrades listed in the facilities plan. All of California's districts are grappling with major changes that include a new state funding scheme, new educational standards and a California court ruling that teacher tenure is unconstitutional.

Board president Margie Sherratt said the district "will respond quickly and with due diligence" to appoint an interim superintendent and that she expects the transition will be smooth. The board will discuss next steps during Tuesday's meeting, the district announced Friday in a press release; it said Vital will remain as Alameda's superintendent for part of the summer, and that an interim superintendent will be hired while a permanent one is sought.

The agenda for Tuesday's meeting contains a closed-door item to discuss the superintendent' employment.

"I personally thank our superintendent for her tremendous work and focus on the goal of all of our students achieving and exceeding their potential. The innovative programs developed during her tenure, for example, currently allow Alameda students and families choice in shaping their education," Sherratt said. "Ms. Vital's instructional focus never wavered and we are a high achieving district because of her vision. I wish her well and great success in her new educational adventure."

Vital was hired in November 2008, just as California entered an era of major funding cuts to schools - and Alameda earned a national spotlight for its response to the funding losses. The district was ultimately a major player in a lawsuit aimed at equalizing funding for California schools, and school boosters were successful in passing a parcel tax to backfill the cuts on their second try.

She oversaw the implementation of a master plan for the district that offered schools the opportunity to put innovative and magnet programs in place and restructuring efforts at three schools that faced closure due to lower-than-required test scores. Vital also supported math and literacy programs aimed at boosting test scores and piloted programs aimed at reducing suspensions and expulsions.

But Vital's tenure was also marked by struggles that included a successful lawsuit from commercial property owners seeking to overturn the Measure H parcel tax, which voters approved before she was was hired but which the district collected despite a pair of lawsuits. The district also faced an uproar - and an unsuccessful suit - over the school board's decision to implement a curriculum that showed gays in a positive light, as well as a recall campaign against the three school board members who voted for it.

Vital also clashed with the teacher's union over a new contract and with a pair of school board members - Trish Spencer and Barbara Kahn - who have questioned the district's commitment to transparency and decision-making under her tenure. Community members have also criticized the district for some decisions, including a move from Historic Alameda High - which hasn't been earthquake-safe for students for decades - into offices on Marina Village Parkway.

Bill Schaff, who was president of the school board that hired Vital, said he remains a fan. He said she was always "fair and available to all" and that she had high expectations and led by example.

"Though she was an easy target for anyone who did not like her policies or her high expectations, I believe many people will revisit her history with the perspective that I expressed and will understand what a large loss her departure will be for AUSD," Schaff said.

Capistrano Unified taught about 54,000 students in 2012-13, according to Ed-Data, which offers data on California's school districts; Alameda Unified has about 9,000. The district, which bills itself as the second-largest in Orange County and that county's largest employer, had a district-wide API score of 883 in 2012, California Department of Education data show; in its press release, the district said it has consistently ranked in the top percent of public schools in the state.

Its outgoing superintendent, Joseph M. Farley, is retiring on July 1 after running Capistrano Unified for four years, the district's press release said.


Submitted by Sfb (not verified) on Fri, Jun 20, 2014

I never understood why supes got credit for parcel tax success. It was parents and teachers who mobilized the community. KV was actually more of an obstacle than a motivator, and one parcel tax failed when she blackmailed herself a raise just as the campaign began. Let's NOT throw big money away on what I believe is a less-than-vital (!) political position. Let's instead empower the school board and local administrators to lead, and hire a moderately paid liaison and facilitator.

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Fri, Jun 20, 2014

Would it be impossible to find someone with a little common sense, maybe a parent with school-age kids, instead of a high-priced pro from Dover? $250,000 a year compensation sets the tone in a very bad way.

Submitted by luczai (not verified) on Fri, Jun 20, 2014

It used to be that people looked at a career in education as public service that was not so rewarding financially but allowed one to do something meaningful for the community. Salary does not insure competence. Certainly we have enough examples to support my point. The current system attracts carpetbaggers from other districts who put in a few years and then cash out for a bigger piece of the pie somewhere else. I would urge AUSD to look for someone invested in the future of Alameda's school children, preferably someone who has already made their money, is comfortably well off and doesn't see this as a paycheck but as an opportunity to serve. Hopelessly naive? Maybe, but the "me first" attitude of the last administration was a disaster and is going to make it harder going forward for AUSD to get voter support for bond issues.

Submitted by Harry Reppert (not verified) on Fri, Jun 20, 2014

Can someone explain current status of the overturned Measure H property taxes collected by AUSD? I heard one business owner declare that the District was refusing to refund those collections found to be unlawful.

Submitted by Sylvia Gibson on Fri, Jun 20, 2014

In the summer of 2012 when the school district had a budget crunch, when funds for our books and supplies were shrinking, when teachers' health care costs were increasing and our salaries were being cut, Superintendent Vital received a pay raise and 100% of her and her family's medical expenses paid for by the taxpayers. That's when I realized that she is not a good leader. She is not captain of a team or captain of a ship. She has alienated her teaching staff and failed to engage the community. Good riddance.