By Linda Harmon
When the Ojai Unified School District hired Henry Bangser as the new superintendent last month they gained a man with plenty of experience in the classroom, in administration, and in business.
They also got another ingredient for an educator, passion.
Bangser will not only face a tight budget, but also changing political mandates about how those funds are applied. Bangser says he’s ready.
“Where we were, our board meetings were on television,” said Bangser, who added being able to clearly explain a budget is as important as arriving at one. “I wouldn’t be home 10 minutes before people would be calling me … You have to have a certain mind set. You have to hit a bottom line.”
Board President Linda Taylor said one of the reasons for choosing Bangser was his record of “building strong partnerships with staff and local communities.”
Bangser has already begun that task here in Ojai with two days filled with a series of half-hour meetings this week.
He focused on getting to know staff, union officials and the cast of characters that make up our small town, all moves he feels will help him be a better superintendent. Bangser has set a goal for himself of knowing all his staff by face and name by the end of December, hopefully sooner.
“It’s a challenge,” said Bangser.
In response to a request for comment on the skate park, Bangser declined, except to say he is certain an agreement can be reached with the parties involved.
He did give an opinion on one of the national mandates currently up for revision, No Child Left Behind. The Bush era program affects testing and accountability standards nationwide for important federal funding.
Bangser has mixed feelings about its effects, but again is willing to work with what he is given.
“You make sure all your testing is in order and you do what you have to do,” said Bangser, who personally knows the Obama administration’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “I have let my feelings be well known for years. In my mind there are a lot of positives to No Child Left Behind, but there are a lot more negatives.”
One of his main objections is what he calls “the punitive fashion” in which it was written so that schools that don’t do well are classified as “failing schools.”
According to Bangser, it didn’t matter where your students were at the beginning of the school year, the base of learning you started with, only where you ended up.
“I think that is absurd,” said Bangser, who believes in accountability not penalties, and went on to explain. “It got to be its most absurd if you followed it into the future, to its completion in 2013-2014, when every student in the nation was supposed to meet the same standard. They set an absolute standard.”
Bangser worked for 16 years at the New Trier District in Illinois where he said students were so far beyond the No Child Left Behind standard, teachers wouldn’t have to teach anything to meet the number.
“That’s not fair,” said Bangser. “There are schools out there, with a group of students that are working really hard, who started with a number that is so far below the standard that, no matter what they do, they can’t catch up.”
Bangser also said in the past that standard was raised each year and those schools got farther and farther behind.
“What I hope happens,” said Bangser, “what would be a fabulous change with the re-authorization, is that the standard would not be an absolute number, it would reflect where the school and its students start out.”
Bangser didn’t always have a passion for education.
“It wasn’t until my freshman and sophomore years in college when I was working at a children’s summer camp that I found I just loved working with kids,” said Bangser, who grew up in Illinois. His father and grandfather were lawyers with 118 years of practicing law between them. “I just always thought I’d be a lawyer.”
Instead Bangser went on to receive his bachelor’s in economics from Williams College and his master’s in social sciences from Northwestern University, teaching while getting his doctorate in educational administration also from Northwestern.
He taught his favorite subjects, U.S. history, political science and constitutional law.
“Supreme Court justices are the best authors,” said Bangser, who still lists reading constitutional law as a hobby along with golf.
He said his move toward educational administration was a gradual progression.
“I always liked leadership and was always involved with leadership,” said Bangser. “I was always a team captain and liked helping to make teams or organizations become better … I went from being a teacher, to an assistant principal, and then a principal. Later I found out what a superintendent does and decided I liked making those decisions. And, quite frankly, I like making a final decision. I loved being a principal and missed being with the kids, because you lose some of that, but I like taking the responsibility of making that final decision.”
Bangser served as superintendent for 16 years at New Trier, retiring three years ago to became the chief executive officer of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the largest personnel search firm for school districts across the nation.
“I never planned on staying retired,” said Bangser, whose own father died at 78 and grandfather died at 87, both still practicing law. “I was a superintendent by the time I was 34. I did it for 23 years, in two states and in three different districts … I was just at that age where the state retirement said it was time to retire.”
The Ojai position opened up four-and-a-half years later, the timing was right, and Bangser was ready to relocate to the West Coast.
“My boss and I had been working on the transition, so it is all going smoothly,” said Bangser.
Bangser and Sarah, his wife of 36 years, are looking forward to the move which puts them closer to two of their married children.
“My daughter and her family live in Ventura and my youngest son and his wife just moved to Los Angeles from New York, so we hit the jackpot,” said Bangser.
Bangser’s wife will be continuing to work as a major gifts officer for Northwestern University, “encouraging alumni to make generous donations.” According to Bangser, she will transition to the West Coast division of the university. Bangser added,
According to Bangser, he and his wife are especially thrilled to be closer to their first granddaughter, who lives in Ventura.
“We will rent for a little while,” said Bangser, “probably in Ventura near my daughter’s family, at least to start out, and until we get to know the area. It’s just easier that way.”
For the curious out there, Bangser will be at the Aug. 18 board meeting and all are welcome, although he does add, “I won’t be doing much as Jim (Berube, acting superintendent) has done most of the work.”