By Srianthi Perera

Three years after taking on the rancorous school board of Gilbert Public Schools and helping bring more cohesiveness, Dr. Christina Kishimoto is leaving her superintendent role.

Three senior members of the superintendent’s office are departing in her wake. They are Chief of Staff Alex Nardone and Chief Academic Officer Linda McKeever, who are both retiring, and Chief Financial Officer Tom Wohlleber, who is leaving for a position in Casa Grande, where he lives.

Nardone previously worked with Kishimoto in Hartford, Connecticut and joined GPS three years ago along with Kishimoto; he plans to return to his home state. McKeever was also hired just following Kishimoto’s hire and oversaw the district’s academic services, including assessment and curriculum.

Kishimoto’s current contract was extended for two more years. However, when she was invited to apply for Hawaii’s state superintendent position, she did. The rigorous interviewing process took place over nine days, and Kishimoto said she was “pleasantly surprised” to find herself moving forward at each step.

After beating out 91 other applicants, she is due to assume the role on August 1. It pays a salary of $240,000.

“It’s a very unique job and they don’t come about often,” Kishimoto said of her decision to apply. “The state is doing some things that I think nationally we should be doing across the board; which is really looking at the language and culture that our kids bring to the classroom.

“That was extremely attractive to me,” she added.

“We thank Dr. Kishimoto for her service to GPS over the past three years and wish her the best as she takes on a new role in Hawaii,” said Sheila Rogers, president of GPS Governing Board, in a statement. “We will work together to place an interim superintendent while we begin our search for permanent leadership.”

Rogers, of course, will have to search for three candidates to fill the vacated positions, not just the superintendent’s.
All this, when GPS has a month to pass the 2017-18 budget and prepare for a new school year.

As her transition begins, Kishimoto said she’s “fully committed” to making sure it goes well. “The Hawaii leadership has been accommodating and flexible; they’re waiting for me to say what’s going to work in terms of my timeline here,” she said.

Lily Tram, a former GPS board member who held office from 2008-16, said Kishimoto “was an amazing superintendent” for the town.

“We’ve moved the district forward definitely the past three years; we couldn’t have done it without her,” Tram said. The successes, she noted, included overseeing the passage of an override and bond election; getting a digital platform on the curriculum, such as the 30,000 Chromebooks for seventh- to 10th-grade students and teachers; obtaining five more A+ ratings (bringing the total to 12 schools) from the Arizona Educational Foundation; partnering with local business leaders and with higher education institutions and working with peer districts to bring about positive outcomes, such as sponsorships.

Tram, however, cautioned that her leaving would be detrimental to the district.

The first challenge would be to find a replacement, she said, adding that it took a year and a half to hire Kishimoto.
“It’s unfortunate that she’s leaving, because any time we change a superintendent, it takes about three to five years, maybe seven years, before you can move back up again because things are all on hold whenever you change a superintendent,” Tram said.

Another challenge would be for the district and the community, including parents, to get used to a new leader’s style.
Not everyone has kind words for Kishimoto.

“I’m not at all upset that she is leaving. I know it is a disruption for GPS to have to conduct a search for a new leader, but I do feel like her time here was somewhat toxic,” said Lisa Nicita, a parent of three who attend GPS schools.

“She built layers around her that created an unnecessary buffer between her and parents, unlike any other district leader GPS has known before. And, she definitely had an agenda for reform that I know wasn’t really welcomed among many parents,” Nicita added.

Kishimoto said her stay with GPS amounts to “three tough years.”

“When the board asked me if I was willing to accept the position in full disclosure that there was lots of disruption occurring, and the board really owning that that needed to be corrected, I asked the board if they were going to be willing to go through governance training together with me so we can set a new vision and mission for the district,” she said.

With the board’s willingness to do that established, Kishimoto said she was “willing to jump in and say ‘we can work through this.’”

She was also buoyed by the standards of the schools, and thought they were delivering instruction well, although they were being impacted by morale, she said.

“I said (at the time) this is something we can turn around,” she said, “because we have great groundwork laid with the quality of schools that are here. And the board was committed to go through that tough process of working differently with one another. This is what has occurred.”

Considering the future of GPS, Kishimoto said: “We’re at a point where the district has to plan for what the next decade is going to look like. Gilbert still has challenges before it. With the right leadership, they’re going to be able to continue this work. I think principals are ready to do this work and teachers are ready to do this work.

“I think there just needs to be a line drawn in the sand that says that the one thing we’re not going to tolerate as we move forward is disrespect,” Kishimoto added. “They’ve been instances of deep disrespect that even I have experienced, that doesn’t belong in a public school system.”