Pasquale Scuderi is leaving Berkeley to head up Alameda Unified, after 13 years with the district. Photo: Emilie Raguso

After 13 years with Berkeley Unified, the district’s second-in-command has left to become Alameda’s superintendent.

Associate Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi’s final day in Berkeley was earlier this month, and he spoke with Berkeleyside by phone after taking a hard-hat tour of his new district’s facilities.

Scuderi, 50, first came to Berkeley to serve as a vice principal at the high school in 2006, after teaching middle school in West Contra Costa County. He later became BUSD’s director of personnel, Berkeley High principal, assistant superintendent for educational services and, finally, associate superintendent.

Scuderi’s departure comes during a moment of massive turnover in the district’s central office, where a number of top staffers, plus Superintendent Donald Evans, are leaving or retiring. Many of Scuderi’s colleagues throughout the district told Berkeleyside they had hoped and expected that the associate superintendent would be selected as Evans’ successor. The Berkeley School Board instead hired San Francisco Unified’s Brent Stephens this spring. In late June, Alameda Unified announced that Scuderi would become that district’s new superintendent.

During Scuderi’s decade-plus tenure in Berkeley, the district has changed significantly, for better and worse, he said.

“The cost of housing has become astronomical. There’s been a noticeable impact on the diversity at our schools,” he said.

Inside the schools, educators are thinking more about how and what they teach their students, Scuderi said.

“I think that over the last decade compared to when I got there — and I think this is a credit to the school community at large — there is a much more consistent and interesting discussion around teaching and learning, the nuts and bolts,” he said. “I attribute some of that to district leadership, and a lot to school principals.”

The administrator’s own favorite job “would have to be” his stint as principal of Berkeley High.

“That was the wildest and most crazy-making moment of my career,” Scuderi said.

Pasquale Scuderi meets with parents and teachers in 2017 to discuss proposed cuts to Berkeley Technology Academy and Independent Studies. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The position, currently held by Erin Schweng, is a somewhat notorious job. In the not-too-distant past, there was a string of people who stayed for just around a year each. More recently, one left abruptly in a cloud of mystery. During Scuderi’s first year, he weathered a series of incidents where guns were brought to campus, and had to deal with the fallout from controversy around science labs and school resources.

As principal, Scuderi also made a point of regularly clearing his calendar for a full day to get out into classrooms and the courtyard. He said he plans to do the same from the start in Alameda.

Matt Carton, a Berkeley High English teacher since 2002, said Scuderi wasn’t a “perfect principal. But he has been the best one I have ever worked for.”

“Pasquale’s facility to multitask on the day-to-day aspects of running Berkeley High was an amazing thing to watch,” said Carton in a message to Berkeleyside. “He also got things done. He is the only principal who managed to stop the senior streak.” (That particular accomplishment might be considered a failure to the teenagers who previously sprinted in the nude through the campus and surrounding city streets at the end of each school year.)

From Berkeley High, Scuderi went to the district headquarters, along with four of his principal colleagues at the time. One of the others, Evelyn Tamondong-Bradley, is also leaving her position as assistant superintendent of human resources this summer, and and another, Pat Saddler, left last year. The fourth former principal, Maggie Riddle, is still BUSD’s director of schools.

Being BHS principal was “the wildest and most crazy-making moment of my career.” – Pasquale Scuderi

Riddle described her colleague as “majorly collaborative and definitely a team player.”

“One of the thing I appreciated was he really believed in his team,” said Riddle, who ended up working for Scuderi when he became associate superintendent. “I’ll speak for myself — he always wanted to ensure I had the support I needed to do the best work for Berkeley Unified.” Both Scuderi and Riddle saw their workloads increase tremendously this year, after Saddler’s departure.

When Riddle and Scuderi first started in the Ed Services division, “we brought about several initiatives that gave us the ability to have schools focus in on data, particularly for students of color,” she said.

She and Scuderi both pointed to recent changes made to the early literacy curriculum, as well as the middle school English language arts program.

“In recent years we have had some difficult but honest conversations about early literacy,” Scuderi said. “I think I’m leaving the district in good place, with the addition of phonics.”

The new phonics-based curriculum for the younger grades was long-awaited by advocates who pointed to achievement gaps and research undermining the efficacy and appropriateness of the former “whole language” approach to teaching reading. In 2017, disability rights lawyers filed an ongoing class-action lawsuit against BUSD alleging failure to serve and accommodate students with dyslexia. Some teachers and advocates say the new phonics program did not solve the issues.

Pasquale Scuderi gets a hug from his former boss, Donald Evans, at their joint final School Board meeting. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In recent years, BUSD’s math program, particularly at the high school level, has also been a subject of ongoing parental complaint. The transition to Common Core standards, the specific curriculum and higher failure rates have all been criticized. In June, Scuderi and other BUSD staff gave a presentation to the School Board, saying the district is beginning to fundamentally rethink how it handles math programming and teaching, allowing for more collaboration between educators throughout all grade levels.

“In hindsight I wish I would have got there sooner,” Scuderi said. “I do think we’ve left a pretty comprehensive and honest and reflective analysis. I really hope someone will take that on.”

Scuderi has made an effort throughout his career in Berkeley to stay abreast of current education research and pedagogy — a not always pleasurable, yet a critical, task, he said.

“Age and experience always threaten you with complacency,” he said. “When I spend time on the weekends or late at night, or I’m falling asleep on the couch reading some education journal, it’s kind of like exercise, but I always feel better on other end of it. One of the things that’s critical is to always be in contact with people doing the work. It’s one thing to sit in a district position and theorize about how something can help kids. I learn something all the time from conversations with teachers. Stuff like that energizes me and helps me stay current and informed.”

It was a transition then, Scuderi said, to move to his most recent role as the superintendent’s associate.

The job was an education, he said, and an “invaluable, necessary step.”

“One of the challenging parts of that job was that it wasn’t a public-facing job,” said Scuderi, who considers himself “a teacher by trade.”

That said, he got plenty of opportunities to face the public — or to become the public face of difficult district decisions.

Over the years, many parents have criticized Scuderi for what they view as an opaqueness and hesitance to engage with them directly.

Others, like Mimi Pulich, a member of the LCAP Parent Advisory Committee, said Scuderi dived right into his short-lived leadership of that group.

“Pasquale’s approach and ideas were impressive,” Pulich said in an email. “He was both receptive and responsive to parent input and requests…I think Pasquale did the lion’s share of running BUSD during the past five years, and I expect his absence to be felt next year.”

Pauline Follansbee (left) and Pasquale Scuderi propose budget cuts to the School Board in 2019. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Another major project that fell on Scuderi’s plate this school year and last was the reduction of $2 million from the district’s budget, twice. Scuderi, along with other staff, had to propose itemized cuts and present them to the public and the School Board at numerous meetings. In 2017-18 that process was contentious, and Scuderi had to defend particularly sensitive eliminations of teachers at the continuation high school and security guards there and at Berkeley High. This year, district staff managed to avoid that level of controversy, and slashed costs in their own office.

Scuderi said he embraced, on some level, the public criticism and complaints.

“I never felt like I had to guess what people were thinking in Berkeley,” he said. “There was an intensity, but I wouldn’t trade that to be swimming in wonder.”

Scuderi is leaving Berkeley as the district heads towards more big challenges and decisions this fall. The teachers union doesn’t have a contract. Some School Board members want to overhaul the way students are assigned to middle schools. The city of Berkeley has given BUSD money to look into building housing for its workforce.

And despite all the new equity programs and policies put in place during Scuderi’s tenure and before, Berkeley, like many other districts, continues to struggle with serious racial achievement gaps.

Scuderi’s take, from years in public education?

“I think the problem we’re trying to solve, the challenge we’re trying to overcome, is a lot more complex than schools alone,” he said. “I don’t say that to get schools off the hook. The thing that’s a little frustrating to me is when schools talk about gaps and outcomes, we often don’t hear other sectors or segments of our culture talking about fact that there are still profound gaps in outcomes in everything from the health and medical side, to neighborhood community services, and the way kids are affected by violence and environmental hazards in their own homes.”

These are issues that Scuderi will continue to grapple with on a nearby island.

“I was looking to become a superintendent,” he said. “When it wasn’t going to happen in Berkeley, I sort of stayed on market. Brent [Stephens] was incredibly welcoming, and I was all set to do another year or two. Then Alameda just happened. I gave it a lot of thought. After talking to quite a few people and doing my homework, it just felt progressively right.”

“The challenge we’re trying to overcome is a lot more complex than schools alone.” – Pasquale Scuderi

Many of Scuderi’s colleagues wanted to see him in charge of Berkeley instead.

“As always it’s a difficult decision to make,” said acting School Board President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, on the selection of the new superintendent. “You’re really looking at all the candidates, what they’ll bring, and most importantly what the district needs.”

Scuderi, she said, “will be missed.”

She praised his attitude about his students, starting at Berkeley High. “He was able to identify, what are the things going on for students? And looking at them not as barriers, but looking at ways to be supportive and nurturing,” Leyva-Cutler said.

“We’re going to miss his humor,” she said. “The good bantering, the funny jokes between Pasquale and board members. There was always something to laugh at.”

On paper, the district Scuderi is inheriting is not dissimilar from Berkeley. Alameda Unified is a comparable size, with a similar percentage of low-income students.

His three-year contract starts him out with $230,000, plus benefits. His salary in 2017, the last year available on Transparent California, was $181,000. Stephens will make $239,000 plus benefits leading Berkeley.

Scuderi may continue to get spotted around the district in the coming years. His wife, Jessie Luxford, runs the Bridge program at Berkeley High, which means their two young daughters could end up going to BUSD schools.

“I’m nothing but grateful for my time in BUSD,” Scuderi said. “It’s been the centerpiece of my career so far. I’ll miss the terrific, creative kids. I’m going to be rooting for BUSD as long as I’m in the game.”

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,...