Wendall L. Kuykendall

Exercising His Political Muscles by JAY GOLDMAN

Who says a school superintendent can’t also be a political animal?

Certainly not Wendall Kuykendall, who is completing his third term as the elected superintendent of Solano County, a collection of six unified school districts between Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area.

Kuykendall believes it is essential to exercise some political muscle to be an effective school system steward. It is a core message he conveys to his colleagues across California.

Kuykendall believes that public school leaders must try to influence legislation on both the state and federal fronts if schools are to have a fighting chance to meet the immense challenge of educating children for the next century. He sees wide misunderstanding among legislators and the public as to the day-to-day exigencies.

"There’s often no grasp of what it takes to run a public school system," he says. "No other public agency besides the prison system is responsible for housing its clients."

During three years on the state board of elected county superintendents, including a year as the body’s president, Kuykendall reorganized the organization into a more coherent network better primed to influence the endless flow of bills relating to education that arise from the California legislature. He’s organized committees of business leaders, educators, and parents in Solano County to push for fair funding for schools and serves on the executive board of the Solano County Coalition for Better Health.

Now, as the recently elected Western region representative to the governing board of the American Association of Educational Service Agencies, Kuykendall will add his voice more directly to federal affairs. He continues to serve as treasurer of a statewide group, Federal Advocacy for California Education.

Kuykendall also relishes the chance to share his accumulated understanding of political machinations with aspiring public school leaders by teaching a graduate school class on the politics of education at Chapman University.

"He’s pushed his peers to be active on the federal scene to be more influential," says Tom Giugni, executive director of the Association for California School Administrators and a long-time friend. "He’s knowledgeable, he’s likable, and over the years it’s been obvious to his peers he knows what he’s talking about."

Giugni expects his colleague, whom he has known since their days as fellow doctoral candidates, to take a major role in campaigning against the latest California ballot measure, known as the "95/5 Initiative." The measure would mandate that every school district spend 95 percent of its budget on narrowly defined school-site expenditures and restrict spending on central administration to 5 percent.

The measure will appear on the same ballot in June as Kuykendall’s primary bid for re-election.

More than a year away, he had readied his talking points about the potentially destructive measure. State legislators sing a favorite tune about the need for local control of education, yet, Kuykendall says with only slight exaggeration, "2,000 laws are introduced for education in California" each session.

The 95/5 spending restrictions, he argues, would apply unfairly only to public schools, not charter or private institutions. "If there’s going to be a constitutional amendment, why not for all public agencies? Why draw the line for just one? If it’s really that necessary, legislators ought to take it on."

Because he draws substantial public support in his own non-partisan elective efforts (accumulating 76 percent of the popular vote during his last campaign), Kuykendall attracts unusual interest when candidates for other offices target his base.

While at least one Democratic candidate for the U.S. Congress is after his early endorsement for next year’s primary, Kuykendall has tried to maintain a cordial relationship with the Republican officeholder, Rep. Frank Riggs, who chairs the House subcommittee on early childhood, youth, and families.

Local superintendents rarely find themselves in such a predicament. "Yet he never flaunts that power," says Bruce Hunter, who heads AASA’s government relations efforts. "In fact, he acts like it doesn’t exist."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: