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Elsasser back to helm CUSD after 18-month absence

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

It’s not quite the return of the conquering hero, but after all Claremont Unified School District has been through recently, having Jim Elsasser back has got to feel to many like something of a return to form.

Elsasser — who helmed CUSD for nine years before resigning and taking a job with Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District in January 2021 — took over, again, as superintendent on July 1.

“It feels great,” Elsasser said of his new/old job. “I never anticipated, when I left, that I would return. But I will say, probably six months into my new job [at PYLUSD], my wife and I were having dinner, and I said that when I retire, I’m going to look back over my career and I’m going to realize my best years were in Claremont.

“I absolutely loved working here. I loved the district, I loved the community, the people.”

Elsasser’s December 2020 departure came just prior to what was at the time the largest COVID surge of the pandemic, with new daily cases topping at about 240,000 by the middle of January 2021.

“Now fast-forward to this point, and it feels like — and I hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us — it feels wonderful to have kids back in school and I’ll look forward to visiting classes as soon as school starts and to see our students back with their teachers in person and engaged in their learning,” Elsasser said. “I missed that.”

One of his first initiatives will be to develop a new district strategic plan. On August 18, the board will hear a presentation from a facilitator Elsasser has chosen to help the district begin working on the new plan. If the board approves, the process will begin in earnest, with a goal of having it finalized and adopted by November.

Elsasser said the community will be part of the process, “so that everyone has an opportunity to weigh in on this new updated strategic plan,” a move that could not come at a more opportune moment. The board was roundly criticized for a perceived lack of transparency surrounding its decisions to fire Superintendent Jeff Wilson just one year into a four-year deal, and re-hire Elsasser, all with no input from the public and little explanation after the fact.

“It is time,” Elsasser said of the new strategic plan. “With what we hope is the worst of the pandemic behind us, it is time to get out to the community and get input. Who are we at CUSD? What do we stand for? What’s our purpose? What are our core values? And what are going to be our main priorities?”

One of the key components missing from the 2012 strategic plan was broad, robust guidance on the district’s approach to student mental health, Elsasser said.

“Our students are experiencing mental health issues like we’ve never seen before,” he said. “And it needs to be a priority for us to do what we can to help them around mental health. It’s kind of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs [physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization]. If you can’t take care of their social-emotional needs, it’s very hard to educate them or to help them with academics, if they need assistance with mental health.”

Elsasser chose to leave CUSD in 2020 to be closer to his Anaheim Hills home, he said, and for the challenge of helming a larger district, with 34 schools and 25,000 students compared to CUSD’s 10 schools and 6,800 pupils.

“And with a larger district it brings different opportunities,” Elsasser said. “And it was close to home. And so, it felt like a natural fit.”

We asked him how his previous job at Placentia-Yorba Linda went south.

“It didn’t go south,” he said. “It was an interesting time, during the pandemic, and so it brought some interesting challenges. But it was really self-reflection. And when I had the opportunity to come back, I knew this was where I wanted to be.”

An online search of PYLUSD School Board meeting held during Elsasser’s tenure turns up a raft of results ranging from “Maskless attendees cause school board meeting to abruptly end,” “mask revolt,” and “Placentia Yorba Linda School District Can’t Hold Meetings Because Residents Refuse to Mask.”

Elsasser had no comment on the well-documented controversies at his former district.

His return comes on the heels of the fraught divorce from Wilson, whom CUSD’s Board of Education fired “without cause” on March 17. Wilson’s severance package included a cash settlement of $296,818, up to a year of health benefits worth up to $8,050, and a cash out of unused vacation time.

On April 21 the board voted unanimously to rehire Elsasser for a four-year deal at $335,000 per year, plus a generous benefits package, with longevity-based salary increases of 3.5% per year kicking in January 1, 2024, and in 2029. The board is also free to raise or lower his salary at any time with the mutual consent of both parties.

One of the nagging questions surrounding CUSD’s superintendent shuffle has been its timing. Was Wilson let go before or after the board became aware of Elsasser’s availability? The board, led by its President Steven Llanusa, has refused en masse to answer this question, on the advice of its legal counsel. We asked Elsasser if he could offer insight.

“I can only talk about things going forward from July first on,” Elsasser said. “I can’t talk about anything related to the personnel issues here when I wasn’t here. Legally we’ve always been told we can’t discuss issues related to personnel.”

Elsasser said he’s eager to start anew, with a clean slate.

“It’s a new day here, and I really do believe the worst of the pandemic, I hope, is behind us, so we can really get back to focusing on our kids and educating our kids, and addressing their mental health needs, addressing their academic needs, and providing them with the amazing opportunities that we offer in this district,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to the ’22-’23 school year like I haven’t looked forward to a year in a long time.”

Elsasser, who turned 54 two weeks ago, made clear there will be no disruption in the superintendent’s office for some time.

“I will retire from CUSD,” he said. “That is my plan. Absolutely.”

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