Pat Kennedy, longtime principal of Tomales High, dies at 83

01/03/2014

Patrick Kennedy, who served as principal of Tomales High School and superintendent of Shoreline Unified School District for 18 years and helped the district weather budget cuts and salary battles, passed away on Dec. 19 at his Santa Rosa home. He was 83 years old.

Pat—a fisherman and avid runner who loved to follow politics and watch C-SPAN—led Shoreline in the wake of devastating budget cuts following the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, after which property taxes dwindled. But Pat, whose own education lifted him from an impoverished childhood into a successful career in West Marin, worked to repair the district’s finances and improve Tomales High’s reputation.

His own education started in the 1930’s in a one-room schoolhouse in a coal mining community near Steamboat Springs, Colo., where his father and grandfather were miners. His son, Kevin Kennedy, said Pat’s childhood was pretty stark. “He would never bring it up, but if you pressed him he would talk about eating a mayo sandwich because there was nothing else to eat. And sometimes not even that,” he said. Pat’s wife, Rowena, said there were times when there was no running water in his home.

But those hardships did not dissuade young Pat—whose mother encouraged him to be a voracious learner—from striving for a life beyond the mines. He read his school’s entire set of encyclopedias, developing an early knowledge of American history that eventually led to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the subject. 

“He was a firm believer in the power of education as a great equalizer,” Kevin said.

After graduating from high school, he worked for a year in the mines before the family moved to Greeley, where Pat later graduated with a B.A. from the University of Northern Colorado. He was drafted during the Korean War, and though he served for two years, the war ended just before he was scheduled to deploy overseas. 

His daughter, Cindy, said Pat’s life could have ended up quite differently were it not for a well-timed ear infection. He had voluntarily signed up for the army after high school, but during his physical he casually mentioned an earache. The infection prevented him from enlisting with his friends, Cindy recounted. 

Though he was disappointed in the turn of events, Pat soon received heartbreaking letters from his friends, and applied to college. “It made a big difference in the life path that he was able to follow,” Cindy said. 

After earning his master’s degree, Pat moved to Kodiak, Alaska, where he taught for three years. Family members were unsure what lured him to a region that was still a United States territory when he first arrived—perhaps a mixture of the unknown, the outdoors and a healthy paycheck. Pat, a reserved man, never quite explained himself, even when asked directly by Kevin. “He must have been seeking a grand adventure,” Cindy said.

After Alaska, he taught in Ridgecrest, Calif., where he met and married Rowena in 1962. They moved to Monterey for a few years, where he worked as a vice principal, before relocating to Sebastopol in 1973 to accept a job as principal of Tomales High. From 1981 to 1985 he held the dual position of principal and superintendent of Shoreline Unified School District, and was superintendent from 1985 to 1991, when he retired.

Pat’s term at Shoreline’s helm was far from easy. To balance the budget after Prop 13, the school board scrapped the music program entirely; other programs took painful hits and the teaching staff suffered.

In an open letter to Governor Deukmejian in 1983, Pat detailed how Prop 13 had gutted the school district: no music, few art classes, no photography, no psychology or sociology, a contracted agricultural program, fewer foreign language classes, no remedial reading and a teaching staff that shrunk from 22 in 1978 to 14 in 1983. “Another year without real help may just finish off any claim that our school district can make to providing the kids an educational program worth of the name,” he wrote.

Articles and letters to the editor in the Point Reyes Light from parents at the time went back and forth on the merits of Tomales High. Some argued the school was a haven from larger, impersonal schools in East Marin, but others said the lack of funding, coupled with an already small pool of students in rural West Marin, meant limited class options, a lackluster education and a student body plagued by “sameness”—a far cry from the problems of today, as school officials tackle how to serve a student body split between Anglos and Latinos. 

School officials also worried about the number of students transferring out of the district due to concerns over the high school’s reputation.

“That was important to Pat, to build that reputation to get more students to come in,” said Steve Shepherd, who became principal of Tomales High when Pat became superintendent. 

In the years following Prop 13, a volunteer group held auctions to raise money for the district to make up for the losses. But although they raised enough money to fund some teachers’ positions and the district at one point added a number of college prep courses—which Pat hoped would bolster the school’s image—outside financing proved a temporary solution to the district’s stuggles. 

To stabilize finances, Shoreline placed a parcel tax on the ballot in 1984, and Marin voters approved it by a two-thirds majority. It raised $300,000 per year when it began, with a $58.20 tax levied on district parcels. 

“We were one of first districts in the state to do a parcel tax,” said Jim Patterson, who was the principal of West Marin School at the time. “Pat organized that whole first election in 1984… It was a group idea, but as the leader of the district, he really supported it and made it happen.”

Mr. Shepherd also said that in the early 1980’s, when Pat was principal, the school had to accommodate a sudden influx of homeschooled children from Synanon, a community in Marshall that bred numerous acts of violence under its cult-like leader, Chuck Dederich. Some students were leery of the newcomers, Mr. Shepherd said, but Pat “made them feel welcome and safe.”

Both Mr. Shepherd and Mr. Patterson called Pat a mentor whose collaborative leadership style—and practical advice—made an impression.  

“My first year, I had so many questions and I would always call him up,” Mr. Patterson said. “He would say the same thing every time: ‘What does your policy handbook say?’ And I would say, ‘I haven’t read it.’ He would tell me to read it and call him back.”

The two principals said Pat’s door was always open and that he endeavored to listen to all sides, even when he disagreed with them. “I’ve tried to have a more inclusive leadership style because of him,” Mr. Patterson said. 

Pat also tangled with thorny salary negotiations with teachers, which in late 1986 led to a one-day unannounced “wildcat” strike and left both sides bitter. The next year, an independent facilitator was brought in and salary negotiations took only a matter of days, a feat Mr. Patterson attributed to Pat. 

“That changed everything in terms of the culture of the district, and the relationship between the board and the teachers and the administration,” Mr. Patterson said.

Outside his life as a district administrator, Pat was also a passionate runner; when that became too difficult in his later years, he swam everyday. He also loved fishing and took charter boats to catch salmon around the Farallones, though he often brought home more than he could consume. “He was always trying to give people salmon,” Kevin said.

Pat retired in 1991, and one might think he would use his retirement to enjoy a respite from the kinds of controversies he managed at work. But instead of sitting idly, he joined the board of his local homeowner’s association and served as its president for five terms. He managed rancor over legal problems with the association’s documents, bringing them in line with the law. 

“It let him channel his inner school administrator,” Kevin said. Though school board meetings over his nearly two decades at Shoreline could often be stressful, “He retired and started doing the exact same thing.” 

 

Patrick Kennedy is survived by his wife, Rowena; his son Kevin, wife, Jeanette, and their son, Connor; and his daughter, Cindy, and her children, Miles and Talia.