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Mondanaro was the right man to lead Ken-Ton district into a leaner future

If there is a master’s class for superintendent, then outgoing Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Superintendent Mark P. Mondanaro should lead it.

Mondanaro is leaving the district after seven years of tumult and some triumph, managing to steer the district toward a different future, one that holds promise. Many people like him; some don’t. But they all respect him.

Here’s why.

As has been chronicled in The News over the years and deftly summed up in a story by reporter Joseph Popiolkowski, this is a superintendent who knows how to lead, even in difficult times. He has made self-sacrifice a hallmark of his style and he has listened, especially to his critics. And there were many of them.

Ken-Ton, like many other districts locally and around the country, has suffered from lean economic times that were the result of the Great Recession and declining enrollment. In Ken-Ton’s case, this resulted in a budget deficit that reached $13 million at one point.

Add to that buildings that were once filled with children now occupied by a fraction because of a number of factors, including lower birth rates and fewer families. The district’s tonier demographics have changed over the years, with more students on free or reduced-price lunches, more single mothers and more English as a second language learners.

That’s a lot for any district, especially one not accustomed to such enormous changes. But Mondanaro faced those challenges and excelled, so much so that the Kenmore Rotary Club named him a Paul Harris Fellow, Rotary’s highest honor.

They saw what others observed: a superintendent who asked for sacrifices, but started with himself by giving back pay raises for three years and freezing his own salary at $189,900. He also agreed to a new contract in 2011 that ended the district’s $1,700 annual contribution to his health care reimbursement account and permanently increased his contribution to health insurance premiums from 10 percent to 20 percent.

The teachers union must have been impressed. In its most recent negotiations its members agreed to roll back salary increases, pay more for health insurance and add a step to its salary schedule.

Mondanaro believes in transparency, which he demonstrated in the way he devised a consolidation plan that will close three schools and redraw attendance lines. As he told The News, “The only thing that’s more difficult to close in a community than a school is a church.”

The superintendent would have received credit for maintaining the high school graduation rate with all that was going on. He didn’t just maintain it. He increased it during his seven years from 77 percent to an estimated 88 percent this year.

Ken-Ton is not losing Mondanaro completely. He and his wife are raising their two young grandchildren, one of whom will begin attending Hamilton Elementary, which the School Board in April decided to close in 2016.

As he said, he’s as vested as anybody, and the district will continue to benefit.