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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Profile: School Superintendent John Sugiyama

Superintendent Reflects On District's Course, 
Sees Challenges Ahead

As outgoing Superintendent of the Emery Unified School District, John Sugiyama prepares the district for his replacement, the retiring schools chief reflects on his tenure.  Dr Sugiyama sits down with the Tattler.

John Sugiyama remembers the day he got the phone call.  It was in September, 2008 and he was enjoying the 2nd year of what he hoped would be a long and fulfilling retirement after a 35 year distinguished career in education, the last ten years having served as the superintendent of schools at the Dublin Unified School District.  The call was from  Alameda County Schools Superintendent Sheila Jordan.  She was imploring him to pull out of his retirement and go back to work, only this time for the little district Emery.  "It was supposed to only be for nine months", Mr Sugiyama remembers.

Even though it is tiny, Emery Unified had earned quite a reputation among school administrators all around the Bay Area.  Test scores had plummeted and the scandals reverberating from the JL Handy administration had bankrupted the district and the State had moved in and taken over.   The State had stripped the school board of its authority and then, just as the district seemed to be crawling out from its morass, a new scandal broke forcing the district to accept Superintendent Steven Wesley's resignation after a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle reported gross misrepresentation in his resume.

At this crisis point, John Sugiyama was being asked to step in and right the situation temporarily until a replacement  could be found.   After he hung up the phone with Sheila Jordan, Mr Sugiyama's curiosity was piqued, " I did research on the district" he said, "and I found a lot of exciting things going on here, not the least of which was the Center of Community Life and the unique partnerships with various agencies and foundations".

"The primary goal" as Mr Sugiyama saw it upon assuming the temporary superintendent position "was to fix the district's financial situation", still reeling from the bankruptcy.  He took the job, hoping to effect some positive change during a short tenure but as luck would have it the economic situation in Sacramento soon tanked, "In November 2008, one month after I became superintendent, the bottom fell out of the State schools budget" owing to the gathering recession.  Mr Sugiyama had to make some painful decisions and ultimately some pretty drastic cuts were made at the district, "We had to cut expenditures 22%, about $1.2 million worth" he said after noting Emery had averted the worst of what other neighboring districts had to contend with.  He notes the school parcel tax passed by Emeryville voters and a lease agreement with Piedmont Unified School District at the defunct Emeryville middle school, the 'Ralph Hawley' site, as reasons why Emeryville has fared better than other districts.  The Ralph Hawley deal alone has netted the district  $600,000 so far.  
While he acknowledges there's much work yet to be done to return the district to optimum full fiscal health, Mr Sugiyama helped institute some systemic budgetary changes, "We're now in better shape to handle fiscal crisis" he said. "The system is now better able to track revenues and expenditures",  he added.

Mr Sugiyama complained that change sometimes has been difficult at the district, noting, "It's hard to make long term change when you're a short term superintendent" but as he looked back over his life's work, he said the work here has been rewarding albeit challenging, "My tenure at Emery has been the most rewarding in my career".  He added, "If I knew what Emery was about 10 years ago, I would have considered working in an urban district [instead of suburban Dublin].  Urban districts like Emery have limitless potential to grow and improve and students really need the best possible education we can provide versus districts where students come from privilege."

Mr Sugiyama expresses some regret looking back at his Emery tenure; "If I knew I was going to serve longer than the nine months originally agreed to, I would have concentrated more on curriculum and instruction matters and been more engaged in the community as a whole".  He said the district should "do a better job communicating about our schools to the broader community".

While he worked to help usher in the school rebuild that last November's voter approved Measure J mandates, the Superintendent warned Emeryville residents, "With the commitment to build new school facilities, it's more important than ever to develop affordable family friendly housing here to generate the future students needed for our district".

With his retirement looming, this time for real, he stated, "I'm looking forward to doing other things in my life but I'll continue looking at what Emery is doing."

As to his replacement, Mr Sugiyama gave some advice for what to look for; "The new superintendent should be able to manage the likelihood that we'll have another 2-3 years of State budget crisis.  Also, someone who has a track record for improving student achievement".  He spoke directly to his replacement: "Become involved in the community and remember, you are chief educational officer representing the entire community"; sage advice from a seasoned professional.

The School Board hopes to select a new schools superintendent by the end of March and Mr Sugiyama will depart in June.


  1. i feel that next to henry der, mr. sugiyama is the best thing that has happened to emeryville's schools in the 14 years i have lived here. his professionalism, leadership and ability to work with big egos will be sorely missed. we all owe him a great deal of gratitude. anyone up for a farewell party? raise your hands.

    1. Are you kidding me? are you you his "love child" or something the man worthless!

  2. You couldn't be more wrong.
    From the outside, he looks great.
    But from the inside, he is uninvolved and has not provided clear leadership.
    It painfully obvious to those that work in the school district he is nothing but a well paid chair warmer.

  3. Having worked in two school districts with Sugiyama I can attest to the fact that he is the most worthless POS I have ever had the displeasure of knowing! He managed to precipitate a strike in two school districts at the same time! He personally screwed up a multi-million dollar technology project so bad that years later teachers still did not have a single working computer in their classrooms! Take a good look at the picture above of the toad in his pink (80's) shirt, see how he's not doing anything? get used to it that's the man personified!

  4. Freaking WORTHLESS!!!!!!! If I were that useless I'd shoot myself!

  5. AMEN! worthless POS!!!