On Aug. 26, the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District Board of Trustees announced that Barbara Dill-Varga had been offered the position of interim superintendent, replacing the previous superintendent, Michele Huntoon, who resigned on Aug. 21.
Board President Casey Powers said, “The Board feels she is just the right person for our district at this time and will help our district continue to make important improvements in our service to our students and our community.”
Dill-Varga began her career as a high school English teacher in the Chicago area, becoming the department head in a school with about 2,000 students. She served variously as an associate principal, an assistant supervisor for student services and school board secretary. In 2017, she was hired as the superintendent of the Carmel Unified School District, leaving that position by mutual agreement in 2020. She assumed the job as ASJUSD interim superintendent on Aug. 29.
Dill-Varga sat down with BenitoLink for an interview on Sept. 8, just over a week after her first day on the job..
BenitoLink: What qualifications do you think you have that led to your selection?
Dill-Varga: I have 40 years of experience in the Chicago suburbs in three high-performing school districts, some of which have national recognition and accreditation, and I was also a superintendent in Carmel. I have the background and, I think, an understanding of the joys and challenges of the job. I love the work, have a passion for solving problems, and I think I have a good match in my skill set to help the schools here.
What was your focus in Chicago in terms of challenges and innovation?
I like working with people, helping them to become better at what they are doing. My work in Chicago, for 14 years in two different districts, was focused on developing quality teachers for classroom instruction, working on grants to support that, getting quality instructional materials, revising teacher evaluation systems, and overseeing special education and technology. We were the first district in the United States to have a Google account—we were their Beta site, giving them feedback on how the school system worked.
What brought you to California?
I had worked in my last school district for about nine years. And my feeling is that if you are there for that long, you have probably poured out your heart and soul into the district and led them on some new pathways, but it is time for new blood. I felt I was in a good position to leave, where I had started things and had good people coming up behind me. My son was living in L.A. at the time the position in Carmel became open, and I thought five or six hours of driving to see him was better than being 2,000 miles away. So I retired from Chicago and came out here.
What adjustments have you had to make, from working in Chicago to working in California?
There are some differences between working in the suburbs of a big city and working in a rural environment. It has to do with resources, dependable internet, and different kinds of funding mechanisms. But I think that kids are kids and people are people. You are going to find a lot of similarities in what they need, what they aspire to, and how you can help them. Yes, there are differences, but there are also a ton of similarities.
You left Carmel ahead of your contract. Why?
I am really not allowed to tell the story in full, but I can say that the board that hired me was completely on board with me and the recommendations I brought for this job are from that board. But it is the way things happen. A board changes for whatever reason, and then suddenly, those are not the people who hired you. There was an alignment between us that was not there anymore, and I think we both understood that.
Did you have a list of priorities when you took this job?
Any time there is a changeover in leadership, such as is the case here, I think the job of the person taking over is to calm the waters. You need to supply some stability. I have seen a lot of things before, and I know how to do things. I can identify what is working and support that, but I can also provide hope and also assurances we can work things out together. I am here to help, to listen to people, and build relationships. Overall, I am the hand at the tiller, and I think it is a steady hand.
Do you think there is a heightened concern among parents about teaching that may have come out of dealing with COVID-19?
I think COVID has changed many perceptions about teaching inside and outside of the classrooms, and it has made parents more involved at different levels, like wanting to be more involved with the school board. And we are all just exhausted and burnt out because of the pandemic. So it is very easy for everyone to be working with short fuses.
What kind of changes to education did COVID bring?
I actually think there are some upsides to what occurred. Many rural districts did not have connectivity or technology. And that might have been how it would be for years to come. Then the government and school boards started putting money there. And I do not know if we could have gotten to the point we are now without this nationwide need to do it.
Related to that, teachers had to gain many skills immediately to know how to teach remotely. I am not saying they all got to a level of excellence, but it is something we can build on. And I think some kids benefited from not having to do high school with all the social pressures or bullying they may have felt at the time, and this could be a viable option for them.
But other kids took a hit on the social-emotional aspect of school, and we need to teach them once again how to be around other kids.
There was a recent series of Facebook postings concerning the schools’ lack of air conditioning. What is the issue, and what is being done about that?
We are not alone in this. We have this unusual heat event that we are not really prepared for, and I think it caught a lot of people unaware. Unfortunately, in my first three days here, I realized I had to work with this problem, but I would not be able to solve it immediately. The solutions we have to look for will be positive and impactful, but they will be most likely for next year. We are discussing our resources and considering what we can do about air conditioning. But the board has to decide on this as we seek a long-term solution.
I think the way that the situation got into the media was unfortunate because it was my third day, and it sucked the life out of me and my ability to get some work done. There is this thing about “what is the signal and what is the noise.” I knew what the signal was, and I was trying to work on the issue. But there was a lot of noise around it. People with children in these classes are in crisis and want what they want. I get that, and I get that they feel they need to be heard and that there is a plan coming. So I have been trying to keep people informed and lower the temperature, both literally and figuratively.
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