Annie Rinaldi’s on a listening tour. The current Mammoth Unified School District (MUSD) Superintendent has been in the position for six weeks.
Before that: Mammoth Middle School Principal for eight years. High School Principal for three. Then, a resignation in April of last year – the aftermath of COVID convinced her she needed a change. Her last day was in June. She moved to Florida. Started an educational consultancy business. Around seven months later, the Superintendent position opened up.
“I missed the community, and I missed working here,” said Rinaldi. “So, I said, ‘Alright, let’s throw my hat in the ring.”
The best part was also the worst: everybody knew her. “I had to re-establish relationships,” she said. A lot can change in seven months.
Hence, the listening tour … talking to different MUSD community members, looking at what’s going well, finding opportunities for improvement, and short-listing the problems that are urgent. “If you make everything the priority,” said Rinaldi, “then nothing becomes the priority.”
Rinaldi, who visits the schools twice a week, wants to hear from teachers, administrators, cafeteria staff, coaches, paraprofessionals, students – the whole nine. “I want to hear from everybody because everybody has a unique point of view,” said Rinaldi. “And I think it’s salient if you can hear themes or patterns of what they think is going well, what do they think are opportunities for growth, and what are the urgent matters.”
Rinaldi also makes herself available to parents. As a native Spanish speaker, she’s well-equipped to talk with and learn from each and every MUSD family. Many Latinx families find her on Facebook Messenger and reach out – Rinaldi’s not a frequent Facebooker, but she keeps the profile open for those who need to reach her. Some families visit her office in person, and if they can’t, Rinaldi will schedule a family visit herself. “If they’re stuck at work, they’ll ask me if I’ll come by their job because they need to say something,” said Rinaldi. And she goes.
All of this listening leads to long work days.
And the shortage of teachers and staff in the district – a reflection of the staffing shortage schools are facing nationwide – only makes those days longer.
To patch the problem of fewer teachers, the district staff has been hiring interns and helping them get their credentials. Many are local, and some have graduated from Mammoth High School.
In terms of non-teaching positions, the district has no Chief Business Officer (CBO). “So, the good thing is,” Rinaldi said, “I’m learning a lot about budgeting.” The downside: she’s working 13 to 14 hour days. She’s getting support from a retiree who can only work limited hours per day, according to her retirement PERS. Which leaves Rinaldi to handle the rest of the work. “I talked to one [previous superintendent], and she said, ‘I’ve never had to do any of what you’re going through,’” said Rinaldi. Covering the CBO position is demanding, “but it’s not going to be forever,” Rinaldi said.
The district’s been searching for a new CBO since August. But, housing is the biggest hurdle to hiring more staff. The MUSD Board is asking Rinaldi to look into employee housing.
Other California school districts have implemented similar programs, and MUSD has available land. “We’re looking at projects, like in five years… [and] working with the town because they have all the plans that they’re willing to give to other agencies working with them,” said Rinaldi. “So, I’m really in the preliminary stages of that… putting out surveys, doing feasibility.”
Recently, Rinaldi finalized negotiations with the district’s Teachers Union, Maintenance of Transportation Union, and the Secretaries and Paraprofessionals Union. They’ll get a 6% raise come March. The negotiations were collaborative, rather than contentious. “It was more, ‘What can we really do?’ What’s feasible?” said Rinaldi.
This type of non-contentious, collaborative work is how Rinaldi operates. She searches for the root of a problem and works with the relative party to provide a solution. Collaborative problem-solving, rather than punitive measures.
It’s the approach she’s taking to the chronic absenteeism afflicting the district’s students. Last year and this year, 40% of the student body is missing 10% of school or more for excused or unexcused absences. COVID, RSV, and other illnesses impact attendance, but there might be other factors at play.
MUSD is working with the Mono County Office of Education (MCOE) to help solve the problem. “They have grants, and they’re helping families come back to school,” said Rinaldi. MCOE is working with MUSD to hunt down the root causes of the absenteeism – “is it social emotional? Is it medical? What can we do to support instead of being punitive?” said Rinaldi.
The district will meet with the student, meet with the family, conduct student success team meetings at the schools – when that fails, the issue heads to the Student Attendance Review Board. “Compared to other districts, where… they charge the parents money because the [student isn’t] showing up for school,” said Rinalid, MUSD takes a different approach. “What can we do to make this better? [Does the student] need counseling? [Does the student] need vouchers for school? What do you need in order to be successful?” said Rinaldi.
Despite the long work days and unexpected staffing challenges, Rinaldi’s right where she wants to be. And it’s because of the kids. “The kids and the collaborative work to do right by those kids,” said Rinaldi – those are the parts of the job that spark the most joy within her. She’s a big proponent of “student choice, student voice,” and thinks that student ideas can be some of the best.
“I’m not trying to wear rose-colored glasses,” said Rinaldi, “but I do love coming to work every day.”