CARLSBAD — Four years and many challenges later, Dr. Suzette Lovely is calling it a career.
The longtime educator and superintendent officially steps down today after more than three decades at all levels in education. The last four have been spent righting the ship of the Carlsbad Unified School District and taking it to one of the best in the county and possibly the state.
“There were so many good things in place,” Lovely said upon taking the job. “They were diamonds and pearls, but they weren’t polished.”
Not one for a big party, Lovely did have a small gathering last week for well-wishers and friends. Now, she will live life at her whim, while her husband, Jon, stays active in his career.
Still, it is a bittersweet feeling for Lovely, to step aside and watch as Dr. Benjamin Churchill of Algonquin, Ill., takes over next week. Lovely said she has been in contact with Churchill to assist in some transition, which she knows is critical in keeping the district running smoothly.
“Carlsbad is a beacon of light in our community and our neighboring districts,” she said. “It’s amazing to hear the affirmation of the success we’ve had. It’s not because of me, it’s because of the team.”
Lovely took the reins in 2012 facing the biggest challenges in her career. The district was hampered by a severe financial crisis, which coincided with the opening of Sage Creek High School.
Lovely said there was pressure to halt the opening of the high school, but after seven years of planning and investing funds, she forged ahead with bringing the school online. Not only was it her toughest challenge, it was one of her biggest successes.
Also among her top achievements, Lovely listed off many: College readiness, restructuring how students are prepared, plus filtering those methods to the middle schools and rebuilding the relationships with the unions.
“The culture had suffered,” she recalled. “When I got here, it was a place that was ready for healing. The board had discussed a school closure. The board was facing some horrific decisions, as were many boards throughout the country. When the board faces those horrible decisions, there is collateral damage with the employees and morale. People feel undervalued and underappreciated.”
In addition to the financial obstacles, Lovely said morale throughout the district was low and employees were wary of the district’s agenda. However, she and the board of trustees implemented a sound financial plan, which did ruffle some feathers, but tough choices had to be made.
As the economy stabilized, the district’s funds increased and programming once again became the primary focus.
“It was an acrimonious time,” Lovely said. “There were a lot of cuts.”
CUSD Board of Trustees President Claudine Jones, who joined the board in 2013, said Lovely’s leadership through recovering funds was critical in moving the district forward.
Jones said the district lost 20 percent of its money in 2012 after the Great Recession and difficult decisions were necessary.
Jones explained as the money began to increase, Lovely was able to bring back personnel and programs struck down by the loss of funds earlier. In addition, Lovely secured $13 million in grants for Career Pathways, which bolstered the ability for students to focus on various educational opportunities after high school.
Jones said another key to Lovely’s success was building a “formidable” leadership team, which included district staff and principals sharing the same vision for the district and its students.
“Dr. Lovely has been a fantastic leader for us,” Jones explained. “She came in and navigated our district through recovery. We had a 20 percent drop in revenue. She also helped us successfully open our second high school in Sage Creek.”
Lovely spent nearly all of her career in the Capistrano Unified School District, beginning as an elementary teacher and working her way up the ladder.
She knew as a kid that education was her passion — save for some time as a teenager. Nevertheless, teaching was so ingrained in her, Lovely even played “school” with her friends as a child, she laughingly reminisced.
“I always had this interest to learn more,” Lovely added. “I always got to be the teacher and had great lessons planned. I wondered why I started losing all my friends.”
She graduated from the University of California, Irvine in 1981 and followed with a master’s in administration in 1988-89.
After teaching, she became a vice principal and principal before making the transition to the district level. But after 26 years at Capistrano, Lovely, citing the then-ongoing political disturbances, opted to leave in 2009.
Lovely made a lateral move to Yorba Linda for the next three years and then threw her hat in the ring for the opening at CUSD.
She landed the top spot in Carlsbad and made the commute each day from her home in San Clemente.
“I had a pretty traditional career trajectory,” Lovely said. “I had all this school experience, I was able to understand from a school lens how to help teachers be more successful. How to hire the right teachers … how to hire principals.”
Brian Brockett, principal of Aviara Oaks Middle School and one of Lovely’s first hires, said she brought a shared vision.
After the tumultuous times of 2012, Brockett said his colleagues bought into Lovely’s vision through her “caring leadership.”
“Her style came at a time when it was needed,” he said.
“One of the standout things she’s done is to bring together a shared vision of what we are doing here in the district,” Brockett added. “We’ve had a solid district and her leadership has helped us hone in on what those outcomes are for kids.”
Jorge Espinoza, principal at Carlsbad Village Academy, said Lovely will be missed. He was tapped to turn around the alternative school, which suffered from low graduation rates.
He said Lovely’s support and vision were key in turning the tide at the school. Espinoza said it was her confidence in him to navigate those obstacles without hovering over every detail.
“I’m going to miss her. She’s been extremely supportive of me and everyone in the district,” Espinoza said. “She lets you do your work and gets behind you. She listens to you what your visions are and tries to bring you back around to what the district’s goals are and tries to marry the two. I’ve worked in many school districts and she’s by far the best superintendent I’ve ever worked with.”