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Schools

Departing MV-LA schools chief says he's leaving district in good shape

Don Phillips is walking away from his superintendent post in Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District with a great deal of satisfaction.

He leaves his office today, after seven years with the district, knowing a $58 million renovation of Mountain View and Los Altos high schools is running smoothly, and that academic programs, and staff and community relations in the district are better off than when he first started.

Phillips, 48, will take a week off before taking up the schools chief role at the larger Palo Alto Unified School District on April 21.

"I feel very fortunate to have served as superintendent in this district," he said last Thursday. "I feel like I've been a chapter in an important story."

The success of the massive renovation project and the declaration for higher standards, presented in the High School of the Future Task Force report in 1993, represent two of Phillips' biggest achievements.

The high school facilities are getting a thorough overhaul - revamped classrooms, updated heating and ventilation, roofing and electrical work to accommodate new technologies - all stemming from a bond measure approved by voters in June 1995. Phillips and district officials weathered two narrow defeats of attempted bond measures, then overcame a budgeting snafu last year that threatened to set back the timetable of the entire five-year project.

Those project woes in early 1996, in addition to hard budget cuts facing the district, proved to be Phillips' most trying time during his seven years here.

"People had a sense of - 'Gosh! What's happening here?,' " he said. "It was a time to hold steady," despite questions directed at his leadership. However, with support of the school board, Phillips took a bigger role in directing high school renovations and managed to make cuts in the budget without affecting virtually any full-time staff people. He remembered working long hours, even on vacation, and relying heavily on his administrative team to turn these setbacks around.

Phillips said nine bids are in for the next phase of the project and projected costs are $166,000 below budget. Plans include more classroom renovation and a remodel of science and art buildings, and the cafeteria and theater complexes at both high schools.

The district held open houses for the public of Phase I work, which includes newly revamped classrooms.

Phillips said the High Schools of the Future report remains a vital document because it offers focus for achieving goals for better learning. It offers direction to basic questions such as, "How do we cause students to be active learners?" and "What should students learn?"

"We decided to make it (the report), in many respects, a compass for us," Phillips said.

The report involved input from a broad cross-section of people - parents, teachers, students, business and community leaders, staff and the school board.

The outgoing superintendent was also proud of the number of alternative programs started during his tenure that offered options for those students not fitting into the regular high schools.

Phillips is happy about the current district quest to be "less credit oriented and more skills oriented," by focusing more on raising basic skills levels of all students.

From his vantage point, the outgoing superintendent sees a district whose faculty is "very open to looking at and trying to improve their practice. There's a general optimism (based on) openness and listening - we've cut a pretty good path.

"It's good to celebrate, but we need to keep pushing to get better."

For example, Phillips feels the literacy level among district students overall could be better.

"If I were a new superintendent coming in here, I'd be excited," Phillips said. The challenges for the new schools chief will be the same as the departing one, he noted: retaining top faculty despite the lure of higher-paying positions in the corporate world; pushing academic standards; and continuing to deal with and overcome barriers that come with an ethnically diverse student population.

"The seven years have been very, very brief," Phillips said. "I feel like I've been on an extended honeymoon."

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