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Mark P. Mondanaro’s seven-year tenure as superintendent of Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda schools coincided with the tradition-steeped district’s arriving at a crossroads.

Enrollment in the prideful district that counts CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, Dunkin’ Donuts CEO Jon Luther and astronaut Edward G. Gibson among its distinguished alum continued to decline.

Class sizes grew more disparate. The Great Recession hit, and state aid was reduced, resulting in a $13 million budget deficit at one point. New curriculum standards were introduced. Buildings designed for thousands more were operating at two-thirds capacity or less.

For Mondanaro, it was a do-or-die moment.

“He never looked at a problem and thought it’s unsolvable,” said Paul Chisholm, a member of the district’s audit committee and president of the Kenmore Rotary Club, which named Mondanaro a Paul Harris Fellow, Rotary’s highest honor. “His thing was, ‘It’s a problem. We have the brainpower. We can overcome this. We’ve just to figure out how we’re going to do it together.’ ”

Through those difficult times, Mondanaro guided by building consensus and asking for sacrifice. He was among those willing to sacrifice, giving back pay raises for three years and freezing his own salary. The district embarked on a two-year journey that led in April to final agreement on a consolidation plan that will close three schools and redraw attendance lines.

While some other districts have experienced turmoil, most notably Buffalo and Hamburg, Mondanaro kept the county’s second largest suburban school district on an even course.

“He’s able to take criticism, he’s able to factor in new information,” said Donald A. Ogilvie, a Ken-Ton alum who until recently served as superintendent of Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services and now serves as interim leader of Buffalo Public Schools. “But all the while he is very aware of the fact that as superintendent he had to make some decisions that would lead to recommendations that would change the district.

“Mark should look back on his time there – and the district should look back upon his time there – as maybe one of the more pivotal eras in the history of that district.”

Mondanaro hands over the reins today to Dawn Mirand, former superintendent of Mount Morris Central School District. But he won’t be found on the golf course. He’ll be at PTA meetings.

Mondanaro and his wife are raising their two young grandchildren, one of whom will begin attending Hamilton Elementary, which the School Board in April decided to close in 2016.

“I’m as vested as anybody,” Mondanaro said recently. “It’ll be interesting to view it in the same district as a parent.”

He leaves on good terms with the board and, if not universally loved after the bruising consolidation, is at least respected by most stakeholders. Consolidation forced the district through a rigorous self-examination, and it was Mondanaro holding up the mirror.

“I am not the face of consolidation,” Mondanaro said in January when he announced his retirement. “The unquestionable sustainability issues our school district has were seeded long before I became your superintendent.”

He and the School Board at times took heat for even investigating closing neighborhood schools.

“It was very difficult because you live in the community,” he said. “I live here. I understand it. People are emotional. The only thing that’s more difficult to close in a community than a school is a church.”

In an effort to be transparent, the district brought in an outside consultant, named a focus group of stakeholders and held a series of public forums.

“I think we did it the right way,” he said. “I’m not saying that just because I was the leader of it. I’m saying it because we took our time. A lot of people don’t. They just make a decision because they want to avoid all of that. We had hundreds and hundreds of points of input at public forums and phone calls and emails and letters throughout the whole process.”

The board ultimately decided to close Hamilton, Roosevelt Elementary and Kenmore Middle School, which will save an expected $4.9 million in the first year.

Other districts closely watched how Ken-Ton approached consolidation, particularly administrators’ use of specialized software to model the four final scenarios under consideration, said Ogilvie.

“That is where other school districts were observing,” he said. “I don’t think anybody in any of the other school districts should or can do it exactly like Mark. But they saw his example of not finalizing something until he was satisfied that he had reliable data, that he understood the big picture and that he had begun to get people on board. That was what has been embraced by other districts.”

The best policy

But downsizing Ken-Ton’s assets is only one part of what Mondanaro says is necessary to keep the district on the path to achieving its vision of being a premier district in the state by 2020.

During a wide-ranging interview, he repeatedly warned that the district must be “honest” with itself about those sustainability issues he referenced in January, most notably spending on teacher salaries and benefits.

The Long Island native, who worked at large and small districts in New York before arriving at Ken-Ton, speaks quickly and energetically, sometimes punctuating a point by slamming his hands on the table.

“You could nail this consolidation project that we’ve started completely by 2016, but people still have to be realistic about salaries and benefits and expectations of those for this district in order for us to truly get to where we need to be,” he said.

Ken-Ton had the third highest median teacher salary in Western New York, at $74,800, during the 2012-13 school year, following the Sweet Home and Cassadaga Valley school districts, according to data posted on the website SeeThroughNY.

The teachers’ union contends that the median salary skewed higher in recent years because as the district faced budget deficits it chose to lay off lower-paid teachers rather than create an incentive for higher-paid teachers to retire early.

“I understand what he’s saying as he’s heading out the door, but that’s kind of a new tune that I haven’t really heard,” said Peter Stuhlmiller, president of the Kenmore Teachers Association.

When the district faced financial stress several years ago, Mondanaro returned his pay increase and froze his salary at $189,900, according to district payroll records. He also agreed to a new contract in 2011 that ended the district’s $1,700 annual contribution to his health care reimbursement account and permanently increased his contribution to health insurance premiums from 10 percent to 20 percent.

The teachers’ union in its most recent negotiations agreed to roll back entitled salary increases, pay more for health insurance and add a step to its salary schedule, which Mondanaro at the time was appreciative of, Stuhlmiller said.

“It’s true, we did get some union concessions in salaries and benefits,” Mondanaro said. “But that’s still 77 cents of every dollar we spend. And the guaranteed steps that people have under our two largest unions are not sustainable. Not in this community. In another community, perhaps; not in this one.”

Demographic shifts

Major demographic shifts have occurred in Ken-Ton in recent years. The district is smaller and poorer now, with higher taxes.

When Mondanaro started in 2007, 31 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. That figure topped 40 percent for the first time this year.

That rise occurred as K-12 enrollment dipped from 8,289 when he started in 2007 to below 7,000 now. Elementary enrollment in kindergarten through grade 5 is below 3,000 for the first time in decades.

Over the last 20 years, there’s been an increase in single-parent households, a quadrupling of students with English as a second language and a rise in families depending on other forms of assistance, he said.

“From 1994 to 2014, we are basically a different school district,” he said.

When he started as superintendent, the district’s tax rate was $36.76 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Voters in May approved a tax rate of $46.31 per $1,000, a 25 percent increase over his tenure. The levy went up 23 percent even though the budget was up 11 percent during the same time.

The district in 2008 started its “multiple pathways” initiative to tailor a child’s school experience to individual needs. They felt validated by “Pathways to Prosperity,” a groundbreaking 2011 report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that suggested schools focus more on occupational training rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned in 35 years, it’s all children can learn – that’s true – but they’re not going to learn the same thing the same way,” he said.

Under Mondanaro’s leadership and with staff support, the district introduced the International Baccalaureate program for high-achieving students. Kenmore West graduated 39 students with the prestigious IB diploma last year. Kenmore East graduated its first IB class this year.

Student performance improved during Mondanaro’s seven years. The high school graduation rate rose from 77 percent in his first year to an estimated 88 percent this year.

The district also launched the “Project Lead the Way” pre-engineering program, a Twilight night school program and a Big Picture program for at-risk students, which will have a full enrollment of 60 students in September.

“That’s made a difference,” he said of Big Picture. “We have no doubt that a number of those students would have already been gone and dropped out of school. It’s not a program for everybody, but it’s a research-proven one, and it does seem to be working well.”

The district also will have 350 students enrolled in its four state-certified career and technical education programs.

Advice for successor

With the district emerging from such a critical time, Mondanaro had some advice for Mirand, his successor.

“The heart and soul of Ken-Ton was never the issue,” he said. “The heart and soul is beating well. Don’t listen to some of the one-agenda item people. Things are moving in the right direction. Students are the agenda. The popular thing to do – and something that could get applause – doesn’t mean it’s always the right thing to do for all kids at a given moment in time.”

Mondanaro, 58, wouldn’t rule out a return to education in some capacity, as long as the hours don’t interfere with his new responsibilities at home. But he said he could never again tackle a project as large or as all-consuming as Ken-Ton’s consolidation.

“Who could have predicted that I would be looking at it from a superintendent view these last four years and also a young-child parent view?” he said. “It was an experience that happened, I think, for certain reasons for me, personally and professionally. I never could have predicted it. I want everyone to know that it did cause me to look at everything – as difficult as it was – from the provider side and the receiver side.”

jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com