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Saddleback District Expects to Hire Schools Chief From Ventura County

July 21, 2001|DENNIS McLELLAN and JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A veteran schools superintendent from Ventura County is the finalist to lead the Saddleback Valley Unified School District.

Jerry Gross, 61, the well-regarded superintendent of the high-performing Conejo Valley Unified School District, is expected to be named to the spot after the Saddleback board visits his current school district next week and negotiates a salary.

Saddleback board member Nancy W. Kirkpatrick said Friday that the board hopes to make an announcement on their selection as soon as the end of next week.

"I don't have a lot to say at this point," she said. "We are excited but still have the process to go through."

Kirkpatrick said the board has been looking for "a leader to take us to the next level of excellence, a personable and experienced superintendent." And Gross, she said, meets those qualifications "in spades." He would replace longtime district chief Peter Hartman, who died earlier this year.

Gross, 61, has been at the helm of one of Ventura County's highest-achieving school districts for eight years. If he lands the Saddleback job, he will lead a district that is twice as large.

Saddleback, the fourth-largest school district in Orange County, covers Lake Forest, Laguna Hills, Laguna Woods and parts of Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita.

Gross' wife, Gwen, is superintendent at the Beverly Hills Unified School District, a post she took in June 2000 after leading the school district in Ojai for four years.

Gross makes about $157,000 in his current job. And while contract negotiations are still under way, Kirkpatrick said superintendents in districts the size of Saddleback typically earn a base salary of $160,000 to $180,000.

He and his wife would keep their house in Westlake Village but also spend time at a second home they would buy in Orange County.

Gross said he's looking forward to the new job but will miss his colleagues in Thousand Oaks.

"I feel close not only to teachers and administrators, but to the classified staff and the maintenance people," he said.

Those who have worked with Gross called him a competent superintendent and particularly good at reaching out to the community.

"He's been a great superintendent, and he's well-respected by parents, teachers, district staff and the board," said Conejo Valley school board President Pat Phelps, who said she found out about Gross' impending move Thursday. "I'm sad. It's going to be hard to fill his shoes."

Fellow board member Tim Stephens praised Gross for his support of two programs: one that trains teachers of kindergartners through third-graders how to teach reading and writing more effectively, and a mentoring program that pairs new teachers with veteran educators.

"He's been a wonderful asset to the district," Stephens said. "He made it better than when he arrived."

While running his district, Gross led the push for an $88-million school bond and added sixth-graders to intermediate schools.

Hartman, Saddleback's popular superintendent, died in January at age 63 from complications after kidney surgery in late December. Last year, he and James A. Fleming, superintendent of Capistrano Unified School District, shared honors as state Superintendents of the Year.

Saddleback board member Kirkpatrick said Hartman, who helped gain the district national respect, is hard to replace.

"There's no question about it," she said. "He was a much beloved superintendent."

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