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New Ojai Unified Chief Is Schooled on His 1st Day


OJAI — Introducing himself to a group of students at Mira Monte Elementary School, Van Riley asked if they knew what a superintendent did. One third-grader confidently raised his hand and said, "You're the principal's boss!"

Riley, 49, spent his first morning as chief of Ojai Unified School District touring schools and meeting students, teachers and administrators.

He spent his first afternoon analyzing the district's academic rankings and getting a crash course on education in the Ojai Valley.

Number of schools: eight. Number of teachers: 220. Number of students: 4,085. Percentage of students who speak limited English: 25.

The former Carpinteria school district administrator said he knows parents and teachers have concerns about academics and facilities, but he doesn't want to swoop in and make drastic changes.

Instead, he plans to spend the first several weeks getting to know the district, asking questions and listening to answers.

He encouraged parents to call with comments--or criticisms.

"I value parents who want to advocate for their children--whether it's special education, athletics, math or music," he said.

Once he's settled, Riley plans to address some of the areas where he knows he can make a difference: ensuring that all special-education students get the services they need, expanding technology, and improving relations among board members, teachers and district administrators. Riley replaces Gwen Gross, who left in June to become superintendent of Beverly Hills Unified School District.

In August, the board voted unanimously to offer the superintendent's job to Riley, after screening 22 applicants and interviewing four. Riley accepted by signing a four-year contract at an annual salary of $135,000.

"He's just exactly what we were looking for," board President Vince France said. "We felt he was heads above the other candidates."

Riley, who is married and has two grown children, plans to move to Ojai within the year. His resume impressed board members and district staff members. He has a bachelor's degree and a doctorate from UC Santa Barbara, a teaching credential from UCLA and a master's degree from San Diego State University. He spent 16 years with the San Dieguito Union High School District in San Diego County, where he worked as a math/science teacher, principal, special-education director and assistant superintendent of personnel.

For the last six years, he has served as superintendent of the Carpinteria Unified School District, which is about the same size and has similar demographics as Ojai. There, he got high marks for dramatically boosting student test scores, renovating aging campuses, receiving millions of dollars in grants and introducing new technology.

He constructed a community technology center, wired every school to the Internet and started a program to put computers in the homes of low-income students. Riley also formed a partnership with Azusa Pacific University, enabling teachers to get a master's in educational technology at Carpinteria High School.

"Technology is everywhere," he said. "It's important that our students have the same tools that businesses use every day.

Riley also worked as director of Santa Barbara County's special-education programs. Jim Tremaine, interim superintendent in Carpinteria, said the teachers and staff were sad to see Riley go.

"He is a visionary, an active superintendent who looks carefully, sees what needs to be done, and helps people catch that vision and run with it," Tremaine said.

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