BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans, pictured here during his first weeks on the job, has announced he will retire this year. Photo: Lance Knobel

Superintendent Donald Evans will retire this summer, after six years at the helm of Berkeley Unified.

Evans announced his retirement at Wednesday’s School Board meeting and in a letter sent to BUSD families Thursday.

Many people had expected the superintendent to end his tenure in 2020, but he bumped the date up to July 2019 when he began needing to travel more frequently to his home state of Delaware to take care of his parents, he told Berkeleyside.

“They’re getting up in age. Everybody’s closer to home and I’m the one who’s far away,” Evans said in a phone interview Thursday. “A series of incidents that happened with my mom kind of made me think I can’t wait.

I feel like the district is in a good place for me to transition out,” he said.

Evans has worked in school districts throughout the state since the late 1980s, beginning as a teacher in San Diego, and going on to work in Compton, Oakland and East Palo Alto. He left his job as superintendent of the Hayward Unified School District to come to Berkeley in 2013He was familiar with the area, having earned his doctorate of education from UC Berkeley a few years earlier.

Evans took the job after the man the School Board initially appointed to succeed Bill Huyett, Edmond Heatley from Georgia, withdrew his application amid controversy around his political views.

Evans came on during period of major transition in the California education system. The state adopted the national Common Core standards in 2010, then, in 2013-14, overhauled the school finance system that had been in place for decades, replacing it with the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).

The LCFF lets districts make more of their own decisions about how state money is spent, and gives out extra funds based on vulnerable populations. Districts must go through a public process to create a Local Control Accountability Plan, laying out goals and progress. Berkeley’s LCAP has been praised by education experts.

Evans said he wants to set in motion a broader strategic plan for the district before he leaves.

Donald Evans has led Berkeley Unified since 2013. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The outgoing superintendent is leaving a district that still has glaring achievement gaps. Perhaps the most vexing area is math, where white eighth-graders in Berkeley scored 61 percentage points above their black peers on state tests in 2016-17. Third-grade reading proficiency — considered by researchers to be an indicator of later academic and social success — has improved for most student groups during Evans’ tenure, but major gaps remain there as well. New literacy services and curricula have been introduced in recent years to try to address the problem.

For the past two years, Berkeley Unified has been flagged by the state for extra support from the county due to the poor performance of its homeless students. Staff says the district is headed in that direction for a third year in a row based on continued chronic absenteeism. At Wednesday’s board meeting, Evans said other districts in Alameda County are in the same position.

Evans said his time in Berkeley has led him to the strong belief that the solution to educational inequity is highly individualized teaching and service provision. The distinct needs of each student became clearer to him in Berkeley which, despite changing demographics, has a high level of diversity. There is no educational program that adequately addresses even most students’ needs, he said.

“When I was in Compton, all the kids were black and brown,” Evans said. “Here maybe you have an African-American kid whose parent are UC Berkeley professors. But the kid is the only African-American kid in his classroom. He could be very bright, but how are we addressing some of how he might feel” and how he’s treated by classmates and peers, he said. “That kid may be in the same class as a [homeless] kid who has a different struggle for why he’s not succeeding. How are those individual differences used as assets?”

Through a couple new programs, the district is trying to do something close to what Evans suggested. The new African American Success Project follows a specific cohort of students through middle and high school, pushing extra resources at them. The universal ninth grade system launched this year is set up so groups of teachers share the same small set of students and can better give those kids individual attention.

“The equity piece is a real issue for me in Berkeley — it means you’re going to have to do a little bit more [for some groups] so people can play at the same level,” Evans said.

Donald Evans speaks with a student at a meeting on the 2020 Vision, a joint equity initiative between BUSD, the city of Berkeley, UC Berkeley and Berkeley City College. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The superintendent said he’s proud of his expansion of professional development and staff collaboration, priorities for him when he came to Berkeley. In his retirement letter, he noted the growth of restorative justice and other work “to create welcoming and inclusive schools” during his tenure.

Budget, union contracts on list before he leaves

Evans’ job is not done. During his final seven months, the district will make deep budget cuts for a second year in a row.

The process just started, but some parents and teachers have already expressed their dismay with the district’s initial proposals for the $2 million in cuts. At Wednesday’s School Board meeting, some criticized the suggestion of cutting from the parent-engagement and homeless-student budgets.

Meanwhile, negotiations over the teachers union contract are approaching, and the district has been in contentious negotiations with the classified staff union for months.

“One of things I want to accomplish is having signed contracts when I leave,” Evans said.

Teachers have already begun campaigning for raises, sharing emotional stories at numerous board meetings about the difficulty of living in the Bay Area on a Berkeley Unified salary. Amid a burgeoning statewide and national teacher movement, Berkeley educators have shared that they’ve driven for Uber during evenings, commuted from far-flung cities, held off on starting families or left the district altogether because of high rents and home prices.

“I know what the need is but I also know what I receive from the state,” Evans said in response. “We don’t get enough money from the state to really adequately fund or compensate teachers. We just don’t.”

By way of analogy, he said, “Kids want Jordan sneakers or Curry sneakers but we don’t have Curry sneaker money. I got to give you Converse. I’m giving you sneakers, but it’s not the brand you want.” 

Evans’ departure comes during a period of high turnover in district leadership. Many top staff members, and particularly black executives, Evans noted, have left the district in the last year or two.

Deputy Superintendent Javetta Cleveland left in 2017 and Tim White, facilities director, in 2018. Pat Saddler, director of programs and special projects, left last month to start a superintendent job in another district. Dana Clark was brought on as BUSD’s first Title IX compliance officer in 2017-18, to oversee the district’s highly criticized complaint process, but only lasted a year, and the special-education director left last year too when she moved out of state.

Evans said he does not consider the turnover an indication of dissatisfaction or systemic conditions in BUSD, as some of the staff accepted unusual opportunities in other districts.

Donald Evans greets children at King Child Development Center on Halloween. Photo: BUSD

Some questions have come up around Evans’ own status in the district in recent years. Many people have taken note of the frequency with which evaluations of the superintendent appear on the School Board’s closed-session agendas. From the outside, he can also come across as somewhat hands-off, not making strong public statements.

Evans laughed when asked about the evaluations, insisting that it was a matter of the board never getting time to address the item, always the last on the agenda.

“I like to think I was accessible —whether it be through email, out in the community or at a school site,” Evans said. “Of course you always think you could do more, but that’s not practical. I tried to work through chain of commands. I tried not to be in the weeds. But if I had to go there I would — and I did.” 

Evans said he is unsure how the board will approach the search for new superintendent.

The current associate superintendent is Pasquale Scuderi, who was previously the principal of Berkeley High School.

Evans’ salary was around $250,000 plus benefits in 2017, the most recent year available in the Transparent California database.

After acting School Board president Beatriz Leyva-Cutler announced Evans’ retirement at the Wednesday meeting, board member Ty Alper told Evans his departure will be a “big blow.”

“I’m very grateful for the stable, consistent leadership that you have provided to this district…but that’s not even to mention the progress we’ve made in so many of the areas you came here to make progress in,” Alper said. “We’ve still got you for seven more months, and there’s a lot more work to do.”

In his letter to the BUSD community Thursday, Evans said he will work with the board and staff to ease the transition.

“My hope is that we will have a new superintendent in place before I retire at the end of July,” he said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...