After busy summer, schools seek ‘normal’ year

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There is much new and exciting in the Petaluma City Schools District as students return to school this week, but what is most anticipated is a return to a normal school year.

Last year was anything but normal, with high school campuses turned into evacuation centers, eight school days lost as a result of the devastating Oct. 9 wildlands fires and the poor air quality they brought.

“It’s been an exciting summer. We’ve accomplished a lot, but we’re really hoping to get back to some sense of normalcy,” said Petaluma City School Superintendent Gary Callahan.

The biggest facility project of the summer isn’t quite finished, but Petaluma High School and the community should soon have a new swimming pool on the Petaluma campus. Callahan said the project should be completed by late fall, meaning it should be open in time for the spring swim season.

Projects completed over the summer include:

* A new playground at Grant School.

* A new playground structure at Valley Vista School.

* A new track at Mary Collins at Cherry Valley School.

* An Oasis Garden at McDowell School — trees and landscaping in the middle of the asphalt common area.

* Renovation of the basement into multi-use space for students at Penngrove School.

* New portable classrooms at San Antonio High School and McNear School.

* Reroofing projects at both Petaluma and Casa Grande high schools.

* A new gym floor at Petaluma Junior High School.

It isn’t only facilities that are new in the Petaluma City Schools District, there are new faces in the front office and classrooms at many schools.

New principals greeted students at Mary Collins at Cherry Valley (Amy Schlueter), Grant (Amanda Grey), McNear (Liza Eichert) and Mckinley (Ani Larson).

William Ortlinghaus is the new assistant principal at Kenilworth Junior High School.

Matthew Harris has moved from being principal at McKinley to the district office to become assistant superintendent for Human Resources, and David Fichera has returned to the district to become Director of Learning and Innovation Technology.

In addition, the district hired 45 new certificated employees. Callahan said many of them were products of the Petaluma City Schools system.

“I was pleased to see the quality of the candidates,” he said. “About half of them were Petaluma schools graduates or Petaluma residents.”

Through a competitive grant won by the district, Petaluma will pay for a community service officer from the Petaluma Police Department to work with the schools.

The district also is exploring ways to reintroduce district transportation for athletes to events and games as the high schools join the Vine Valley Athletic League, which will require trips to Napa and American Canyon.

The superintendent said he expects enrollment to be slightly up this year. There are around 7,400 students in the combined elementary and high school districts.

Callahan noted that cost-saving measures are helping the district’s overall financial health.

“Finances remain a challenge, but we are in better shape than a lot of other school districts,” he said. “We have done a lot of work to trim costs without directly affecting the students. That helped us stave off the cost increases we knew were coming.

“Down the road, every district is going to need help from the state. Our school board has been pretty active in lobbying our state officials and we plan to continue doing that.”

Facilities, budgets, transportation, personnel — there are a myriad of issues that Callahan has to deal with, but everything comes into perspective once a year.

“The first day of school never gets old,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 29 years and I still get butterflies on the first day.”

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