If you ask Mattituck-Cutchogue School District superintendent James McKenna to describe running a school district, he compares it to being an orchestra conductor.
Without the musicians, there would be no performance, Mr. McKenna says. He’ll also tell you he doesn’t do anything special and just takes people’s ideas to figure out a way to make things happen. It’s a district’s staff, teachers, students and residents that are the true force behind a school’s success, he says.
Following a 41-year career in education, including 25 in Mattituck, Mr. McKenna has decided to pass the baton.
At the conclusion of his monthly report during last Thursday’s regular school board meeting, Mr. McKenna, 62, said he’s decided to retire to spend more time with his wife and family.
“I’d like to think I did the very best I could during the time that I was here at Mattituck,” said the superintendent, whose voice was hoarse and who fought back tears as he struggled to talk. “This is a great, great district. You should be proud of what you have here and I’m glad to have been a part of it.”
Although Mr. McKenna has already submitted his letter of intent to retire in July, the school board isn’t set to vote on it until its Dec. 12 meeting.
After school board president Jerry Diffley praised Mr. McKenna for his dedication and hard work, the audience of about 70 people gave him a standing ovation.
“We will sorely miss Mr. McKenna,” Mr. Diffley said. “He is Mattituck-Cutchogue. He’ll always be Mattituck-Cutchogue. He lives and breathes blue and gold.”
A Flushing native, Mr. McKenna began his teaching career at Massapequa High School in 1973, at age 21.
“That’s when I started wearing a tie,” he recalled. “I had to wear one every day because I was teaching intermediate algebra to juniors and the hall monitor once said to me, ‘Can I have your hall pass, son?’ ”
Mr. McKenna later taught math in Southampton, where he currently lives, from 1977 to 1987 and then worked as an assistant principal in the Riverhead Middle School for two years before coming to Mattituck in 1989 as the high school assistant principal and later principal. He became the district’s ninth superintendent in 2006.
When asked why he decided to become an administrator, Mr. McKenna said he wanted an opportunity to help school operations run more efficiently.
“As a teacher, you kind of have a vision of how you think things could be better,” he said. “Then you’ll say, ‘Why not? Walk your talk.’ ”
Mr. McKenna said he’s proud of the supportive atmosphere he says he’s helped create for teachers as superintendent, as well as enhancing the dialogue between the school and community through an increasing number of public forums at the school. He also highlights passage of the capital improvement bond about eight years ago as an achievement. While Mr. McKenna and the district have had to make tough decisions by cutting costs in to maintain student programs, the superintendent said he’s pleased budgets have passed throughout the economic downturn.
“I’ve said to people, and I know some don’t want to believe it, but we have literally run Mattituck-Cutchogue on a dollar and a dream,” he said. “We really have done fabulous things without spending a lot of money.”
Mr. McKenna said he believes the time is right to retire when education is at a crossroads and the new standards aren’t something he’ll be able to see through to the end.
“I think it’s time for someone to come in and see it through,” he said. “We’ve begun some progress on it.”
Last year, Mr. McKenna and the school board agreed to halve the superintendent’s scheduled raises for the next two years. Although he was to receive yearly pay hikes of 3.5 percent for each of the next two years, they reached a new four-year deal in April 2012 with raises of 1.75 percent in each of the next four years. Mr. McKenna will also pay 20 percent of his medical insurance premiums, up from 15 percent. His salary for the 2013-14 school year is $190,988, according to his contract.