The Lodi Unified School District Board of Education meeting marked the end of an era, as the woman who steered the ship bid farewell after 15 years at the helm.
The meeting was the last one for Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer, who said she was humbled and honored to have held the position during her report to the board.
Washer said spending 20 years in San Joaquin County education was an incredible experience, both personally and professionally, adding she realized there were two elements of her career that were most important: purpose and people.
“Regardless of the circumstances, I’ve tried to hold on to my purpose: Doing the best for kids no matter what,” she said. “This board has always been student-focused, for which I am grateful.”
She said the second element of her career consisted of all the people with whom she had worked throughout her career, including the board, teachers, administrators, parents and staff.
“I could not have done this job without the confident and caring people around me,” Washer said. “We are a people business. No matter what position we hold, those around us can be the reason we love our job, and the reason we want to stay. And that has been true for me.”
This school year was Washer’s 37th in education, two complete decades of those as a superintendent.
She began her career in the classroom as a teacher with the Manteca Unified School District, and shortly thereafter began teaching in Sacramento.
She moved on to an administrative position with Stockton Unified School District, then as director of educational services in the Patterson School District, before returning to Manteca Unified as a superintendent of educational services.
She became that district’s superintendent in 2004 before being appointed to lead Lodi Unified in 2008, the first woman to hold the position.
According to her staff, she is the longest-serving superintendent among large school districts in California.
On Tuesday, Washer reflected on some of her fondest memories over the past 15 years in Lodi, which included implementing the Measure U bond measure that resulted in major facility improvements for schools; developing new career-technical education courses; navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and having students return to the classroom after a year of distance learning; and creating the Giving Opportunities to Kids Foundation, also known as GOT Kids, a nonprofit organization that benefits students in Lodi Unified, among others.
However, she said her greatest memory will be that she was able to fill students’ hands with books.
With her successor Neil Young set to take over the reins, Washer said she is sure the district will continue to serve the community well.
“Lodi Unified is in a great position to move forward in seeing incredible growth and student achievement,” she said. “The downside for me is that at this stage I won’t be there to watch this. But I will be celebrating with you from a distance.”
Board president Joe Nava said Washer should be commended for leading the district through some of the most difficult times in its history, as well as making sure students and staff “flourish” once a crisis ends.
He added that Lodi Unified students are healthy and receiving a “world class” education because of her leadership.
“As you see the finish line ahead, you know, we are so thankful for you,” he said. “We are excited for your future, no doubt. And your experience and wisdom will be used to support others in leadership.”
Although board member Sherry Alexander was only elected in November, her relationship with Washer spans the outgoing superintendent’s 15-year career, as Alexander was formerly a Lodi Unified teacher.
“I’ve known you in many roles during our time from teaching at teacher’s college, and being on interview panels with you,” she said. “Thank you for your service to our district, and being a female pioneer. I wish you well in your newest role as a grandmother, because I know you will exceed at that.”
Board member Susan Macfarlane said there was only one word come to mind when she thinks of Washer, and that was “grace.”
Washer can be quiet and unassuming, which can fool those around her, Macfarlane said.
“She has been able to turn things upside down when she needs to,” Macfarlane said. “She knows exactly what to say to this board, and she knows exactly what to say to her employees. She has guided this district for many years through difficult challenges, and you see the same look on her face. And that’s a smile and poise.”
Washer and the board received a surprise visit Tuesday when San Joaquin County District Attorney Ron Freitas asked to speak.
Freitas, who was chosen as the county’s top law enforcement official in November, spent 10 years on the school board representing the area around McNair High School.
Washer is a woman who has done so much for the district, he said, whether it was drafting bond measures or creating new educational pathways for students.
“This is a woman who loves kids,” he said. “This is a woman who you can only pay the highest compliment to, and that is, ‘She changed live for the better in every single way and every single day.’ And one of those (lives) was mine.”
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