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Colonna says leading Beaverton schools was a gift

by: Jaime Valdez Beaverton schools said goodbye to Superintendent Jerry Colonna Thursday.

Jerry Colonna will be a free man when he wakes up Friday.

For the first time in 44 years, the North Bethany resident does not have a plan for the next school year.

Thursday is Colonna's last day at the helm of the Beaverton School District, where he has served as superintendent since 2003.

'It seems like just yesterday,' he said. 'Those eight years have just flown.'

Colonna is retiring after more than four decades working in public education.

'It's been a tremendously rewarding career, getting up each morning and driving to work knowing there's an opportunity to make our community a better place,' he said. 'It's the moral purpose of the work that I have enjoyed.

'It's never been a job. It's always been a mission - a sense of knowing what you do is important and makes a difference. The staff and I are enhancing the potential of all the children and young adults in the community and that feels really good, especially looking back over my career and knowing that has been at the heart of all of it.'

Not waking up with that deep sense of purpose to kick-start the day will take some getting used to, he admitted.

'It will be a difficult adjustment for me, I know,' Colonna said of his retirement. 'I have no plans, for the first time - it feels very freeing.

'I have been very fortunate that my wife has allowed me to concentrate this last year on the job. It's taken all of my energy to do so. Now, we'll have the rest of our lives to plan.'

Those plans will likely include more time to enjoy the outdoors with his wife, Linda Bonotto; fly fishing; spending time with his grandchildren; and exploring ways he can use his knowledge and experience to improve funding for public education.

Colonna said the last half of his time with the district has been difficult because of inadequate K-12 education funding, which forced the district to cut more than $105 million from Beaverton schools' budgets.

'Instead of leading, it felt more like management in a declining economy,' he said. 'The focus shifted to where do you cut that will be least devastating instead of where might you add to improve.

'The hope is that the local option levy can help us, and my wife and I plan to work in any way we can to assist the district in getting the word out to pass the levy in November. I know how important that is for the district's future. It won't give budget adequacy but it has the opportunity to give five years of budget stability.'

In the meantime, Colonna spent his last week on the job working with employee groups' leadership to craft a suggested plan of further reductions given the state's likely $5.7 billion K-12 education funding level, which forces Beaverton to cut $29.7 million instead of nearly $25.7 million. The School Board earlier this month adopted a $492 million 2011-12 budget, which was based on a $5.8 billion funding level.

'I will not leave without a plan in place that can work,' Colonna said.

That plan will likely include a proposal for staff to take five furlough days rather than the already agreed-upon four and a variety of other budget adjustments, he added.

Colonna shared his final proposal with Beaverton's new superintendent, Jeff Rose, and School Board leaders.

'The leadership moving forward is very strong,' he said, adding that he was confident in their ability to tackle the tough decisions ahead of them.

Looking back on his time with the district, Colonna said he has always appreciated the community's support of Beaverton schools.

He has also come to cherish its rich 50-year history, the important leadership role it plays in the state, the highly skilled staff it employs and, above all, the opportunities it offers to young people.

'One thing I noticed in coming into this district was the really high skills of 'the average classroom teacher,'' he said. 'I can walk into any classroom and find a really high level of instruction taking place consistently throughout the district.'

During his tenure, it wasn't uncommon for Colonna to pop into schools to work alongside custodians, food service employees, office assistants, teachers and other school staff.

'I wanted to know and become familiar with all the jobs in the district so that I had a feel for what employees were experiencing on a daily basis,' he said.

Whether he was cleaning refuse off of a high school roof, scouring the carpets at a middle school, preparing lunch at an elementary school or answering the phones in a front office, he enjoyed interacting with staff and students.

'I especially enjoyed going on the kindergarten bus routes with bus drivers on the first day of pick-ups,' he admitted. 'There's nothing like seeing the children on that first day at the bus stop. Many of them are crying, parents have their pets with them and the moms have their camcorders going.

'The bus drivers are as kind and friendly as possible to get everybody on board. It's a wonderful experience.'

He has many fond memories of his superintendency, particularly the creation of the district's many learning options programs and the promotion and hiring of school leaders.

As Rose steps into the district's top job Friday, Colonna shared some words of advice.

'Consider leadership in this district as a gift,' he said. 'Beaverton is such a great place to work, a really, really good place to live and a great place to educate children.

'We're so fortunate here because we have a really good mix of public and private schools and a strong homeschool coalition along with the best park and recreation service in the United States. This is a viable, growing district even during these tough economic times.'

It's important to make the most of the gift, Colonna added.

'Utilize Beaverton's influence and status to affect not just the district but K-12 education throughout the state,' he said. 'It's important that you work for the common good of all school-age children in Oregon.'