Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on Jan. 9, 2017.
NORTH ATTLEBORO – Superintendent Suzan Cullen’s favorite moments are when a small child picks her out of a crowd at the supermarket or remembers her familiar face during her regular tours of local classrooms.
It’s what kept her grounded during years of painful budget cuts – and, it’ll be what she misses most upon her retirement Jan. 31.
“I love being in the schools as much as I can,” Cullen said. “I love the first week of school and seeing all of the kids again. I believe in the magic that takes place in the classroom, and I love to witness that.”
When Cullen sat down with then-Superintendent James Rice during her first day in the district eight years ago, they created a plan to preserve that magic after a year of devastating budget cuts to the town.
Cullen and Rice worked together early in her career as a curriculum leader in Northbridge schools, where Rice was an assistant principal. They often talked about the “tried and true” parts of curriculum that made it good and discussed ways to infuse it with the innovation needed to make it “great,” Cullen said.
Eventually they went separate ways in their careers, but stayed in touch until one day, in 2009, when Cullen got a call from Rice asking her to join him in North Attleboro as his assistant superintendent focused on curriculum development.
“I landed my dream job: working with one of my closest friends and colleagues in a field I was passionate about. And then… he got sick,” Cullen said in a teary exit interview with The Sun Chronicle. “We worked out a system to keep things going and get it done without causing any panic, but our focus shifted into survival mode. My major goal was to sustain and maintain and keep our ship afloat.”
When Rice died in 2011, Cullen inherited a position she couldn’t imagine without him.
“He was the superintendent,” she said. “He was our superintendent.”
But the one thing she still had was the vision they had created together.
The hardest part of her tenure as superintendent of schools, Cullen said, was trying to balance years of continuous budget cuts against that vision.
Under her watch, the district failed twice to raise support for an override. In her office hung a large white board filled with new ideas scribbled into three columns: cost avoidance, infusion of new funding, and, to her dismay, cuts. No matter how hard she tried to fight them off, the pink slips kept coming.
“Every idea on the cut column was a person and their family,” Cullen said. “That was difficult.”
There were the downfalls: the closing of Allen Avenue Elementary School, dozens of staffing cuts each year and new fees for parents. But what kept her going were the successes: Amvet Boulevard School became a Blue Ribbon School, one of five across the state. The high school saw major renovations, including a new science wing, special education classrooms, a TV studio and a surge of new technology. AP class offerings expanded and opportunities for full-day kindergarten flourished.
“My coping mechanism was to get into the schools as much as I could,” Cullen said. “That validated what I was doing.
“It is nothing short of a miracle that we have been able to maintain the level of education we have in this town. And I think that’s where the confusion comes from. People wonder how can all of these things continue to happen when our budget is depleting? Unfortunately, it comes at a cost of something else. We’ve never been able to add something without removing something else – that’s not typical of other schools.”
And, as the community has seen, the cuts take their toll, Cullen said.
After eight years of maneuvering and looking for something – anything – to minimize the disruption budget cuts bring, Cullen isn’t sure what comes next.
“If this district has to endure another level-funded budget, then I think the next round of cuts are going to hurt our kids,” she said. “I didn’t sign up to do that. What I’ve tried to keep sacred is the classroom – that’s where the magic happens.”
But while the road ahead is challenging, Cullen said she’s confident in the people she’s leaving behind to find a way through.
“People ask me, how did you do it?” she said. “But all of us worked together with the optimism and belief that we’d get through – and we have. This town is a unique community filled with good people, great kids and amazing educators. I have confidence that the district will continue to thrive and survive because of the people we have here.”
To be sure, she’s going back to the beginning – embarking on a “farewell tour” and visiting classrooms across the district where she’ll read to kids and revisit the magic of the classroom, remembering the spirit that carried her all this way.
“I have been honored to be in this position and to continue on with the vision we had created together, keeping the focus on the magic of the classroom and celebrating all we have been able to do,” Cullen said. “I’m walking out with a heavy heart because of the things we need to accomplish, but also with much pride in the things we’ve been able to do.”
KAYLA CANNE can be reached at 508-236-0336, at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SCNAttleboro.