It was with much reflection that I read of the upcoming retirement of county schools Supt. Bill Cirone. This made me reflect on our many years of service as the two of us started off in the county during a similar time frame.

I had just started working in a small Title I school after finishing college. It was an excellent spot for me after I had turned down an offer to enter the Peace Corps in the Pacific. It gave me an opportunity to serve in a community that needed dedicated teachers. Bill and I continue to be staunch supporters of public education. He always had my back during some very difficult years.

After five years at my teaching job I decided to return for graduate studies in the Los Angeles area. When I returned four years later the Casmalia Board of Trustees approached me to become the new principal/superintendent in the small district. It was an easy decision as I anticipated low stress doing something I greatly enjoyed.

But in 1984 things changed dramatically, as cyanide fumes and other toxins from our neighboring waste dump site settled on the school building, causing an emergency closure of the school.

I can remember the hurried call to Bill’s office to notify him of the closure. Bill had my back with the wave of news coverage as I drove quickly to the doctor’s office that day. My doctor advised me not to return to work at that location, but I had a family to support and students who needed my help. This event started a six-year battle with the owners of the dump site, regulators from every level, judges and politicians.

Families that could moved from the community, but many were stuck. Home owners could not sell their homes because of the dump less than a mile away.

School enrollment dipped below half of the previous year’s enrollment, and schools get state income based on enrollment. Our district could not continue.

But again, Bill found a loophole. He found that with a catastrophic event the Legislature could pass a bill to fund our district at pre-event levels. He took care of all the paperwork for our district. I thank him to this day for his efforts.

During this time period I would go to county and state offices and go through public files pressing my rights to freedom of information. It was during one of these visits to the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District that I found secretive information placed back in the public files that showed a panel of experts had warned the county of harm to neighbors and employees from a cyanide processing machine, and that later it had not been supervised properly by the county. It lacked any required permits.

It gave me great pleasure to turn this information over to the community and to the school district’s attorneys. This was one of many turning points in our battle. Eventually, efforts resulted in closure and the EPA capping and managing the site. Deservedly, the community received the largest legal settlement in county history.

Casmalia School District was where students and parents from all walks of life and all races worked together — as should be the case in a democracy — to not only educate students but to accomplish community goals. This was a true example of what American public education should be. Bill Cirone was part of this effort and I would like to personally salute and thank him for his efforts to help Casmalia, and wish him the best in his retirement years.

Ken McCalip is a North County native. He can be reached at kennethmccalip@yahoo.com

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