First published in the Dec. 17 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
Zahir Robb took the gavel this week as president of the South Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education, taking the place of Ruby Kalra to lead the school system.
As this past year’s board clerk, Robb was expected to be promoted to the leadership position. Patricia Martinez-Miller, who was elected last year and previously held a multi-term stint on the board, was chosen as the new clerk, positioning her to succeed Robb in a year’s time.
Robb tipped his cap to Kalra during the leadership transition, indicating he expects to take after his predecessor as he settles into the role.
“What happens in closed sessions sometimes are some of the harder decisions we have to make, and what I’ve noticed … is the amount of empathy and understanding you take to all situations,” he told Kalra at Tuesday’s meeting. “I personally have gained a lot of insight through your questions, conversations and considerations.”
Kalra took point for the school board in a year that began with remote teaching in full swing. Los Angeles County was in the midst of its catastrophic COVID-19 surge, which delayed gradual returns to school across the region but gave districts more time to plan. Throughout the spring, the district reopened doors to its three elementary schools and eventually the middle and high schools.
Throughout the pandemic, the district also soldiered through a variety of campus projects, including a revamped athletics footprint at South Pasadena High School that students enjoyed when sports also reconvened for compressed seasons in the spring. The board also pulled the trigger on purchasing and moving its central office and finally offloading its longtime location, a move that resulted in many sighs of relief.
“It’s hard to believe that a year ago that we were all in distance learning and we had to come back and bring all of our students and staff to school safely,” Kalra observed at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’ve come a long way.”
In reflecting on the year, Kalra specifically credited the district’s administration, faculty and staff — who work full-time and handle day-to-day operations, whereas the board handles broader policy and meets monthly.
“As much as we all felt burnt out, you show up to work every day and continue to do everything that’s needed to keep our schools going,” she said. “We have other jobs and other things we do, but our schools are really because of everything you guys put in. What we do here is really just a tiny tip of the iceberg.”
Board member Michele Kipke acknowledged that even while the board works collaboratively, it matters to have an effective president, even if the position is ceremonial.
“You have to have a leader, and we’ve had an extraordinary leader this year who has just kept us in sync, kept us focused and brought enormous empathy and compassion and brilliance to this role,” she said. “Doing that in the midst of a pandemic is not fun or easy, but you made it look easy.”
Among other decisions Tuesday, the board also assigned liaisons to various other organizations. Robb and Kalra will be liaisons to the city; Karissa Adams will be liaison to the city’s Youth Commission; Martinez-Miller will be liaison to the Council PTA Special Needs Committee; Robb and Adams will be liaisons to the Five Star Education Coalition; and Kipke will be liaison to the L.A. County Committee on School District Organization.
Per tradition, gifts were exchanged by the incoming and outgoing board presidents. Robb gifted Kalra a copy of “Carry On: Reflections for a New Generation” by the late Congressman John Lewis — “an individual who I think provides such wisdom,” Robb said. In turn, Kalra brought books for her four colleagues — “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
“I think with all the social emotional learning and all that we have all been through and continue to go through,” Kalra said, “there is a lot of wisdom in this book.”