Comeau leaves lasting legacy at ASD

For those who know her, and those whose lives have been touched by her, all would likely agree that there’s just something about Carol.

Carol Comeau, that is, the longstanding and — come June 30 — the retiring superintendent of the Anchorage School District. Comeau leaves her post as one of the most popular, if not the most popular, superintendent of ASD ever.

And why?

“She has a great capacity to care about others,” said Jerry Covey, the Alaska commissioner of Education from 1991 to 1995.

Covey also credits Comeau with doing away with a once entrenched and combative divide between rural and urban districts in the state in terms of school funding and policy.

“It is hard to find any weaknesses in Carol and her strengths are many,” said Sharon Richards, former Anchorage School Board member and president.

The school board appointed Comeau as ASD’s superintendent in December 2000. In a job where nationwide the average tenure of superintendent of an urban district such as Anchorage’s is about three years, Comeau has lasted 12. Her public approval rating is at about 75 percent. When it comes to pay raises, in times of budget cutbacks, she’s turned them down.

“I have a great passion for public education and kids,” Comeau said of what has driven her all these years. “I love what I do; it’s a hobby as well as a job.”

As superintendent, she headed up a district included in the top 100 districts in the country, with approximately 50,000 students and a budget of $562.1 million. Her success has been measured in the district’s improving dropout rate and rising graduation numbers, said Heidi Embley, spokeswoman for the district.

Jim Browder of Florida, takes over after Comeau retires June 30, said Embley.

Comeau, now 70, recently experienced a rare moment – nothing to do while waiting to catch a flight home from Washington, D.C., where she had gone for a conference.

“I don’t get to do this very often,” she said of the two hours of downtime she had, “I feel like I am playing hooky!”

In talking to Comeau, it’s easy to be transported in time back to one’s school days and feel as if one is with a favorite teacher, or the nice mom in the neighborhood who always seemed to care about you.

Comeau hails from Iowa, and a solid middle class home, she said. It’s there where she developed the “core values” of working hard and giving back to the community. Her dad died when Comeau was 7 years old, leaving her mother to raise Comeau and a younger brother. Her mother was a deeply devoted mom, who was active in their schools and the community by being an avid member of the League of Women Voters, Comeau said.

Comeau came to Alaska in the early 1960s with her husband, Dennis Comeau. Married for 46 years, they met in college. The couple’s three children are grown and now live outside Alaska.

Comeau credits her mother instilling a firm belief to “always tell the truth.”

Those who know Comeau agree that her strong sense of integrity has served her and the district well.

“Her biggest strength is her complete openness with the public and the press. This has gone a long way in accounting for the public’s trust in her,” Richards said.

In college, at the University of Oregon, Comeau studied journalism for a year before switching to education. She describes herself as politically neutral and to always “ look at both sides of an issue before making a decision.”

What some might find surprising about Comeau is that she stayed home with her children for the first 11 years of their lives.

“I never regretted that,” she said, telling herself she had, “all the time in the world to have a career.”

And what a career she had.

She began with the Anchorage School District in 1974 as a noon-duty attendant and teacher aide. She taught school for 11 years, and served as an assistant superintendent before becoming superintendent.

Serving all of these roles helped Comeau in her leadership of the school district, she said.

“I think it’s because I knew the community so well,” she said.

Female superintendents are still the minority in the U.S. Of the nation’s approximate 13,000 school districts, about 25 percent are led by women, according to Noelle Ellerson, assistant director, policy analysis and advocacy with the American Association of School Administrators.

District spokeswoman Embley and others like to note that Comeau has always taken the heat anytime anything bad happened in the district. When good happened, she stood out of the limelight and let others take credit where credit was due.

Embley also pointed out that Comeau answers every one of her emails and makes herself available for all media requests.

Comeau also does something few might consider attempting – she hand signs and includes a personal note on all district five-year recognition letters and on all retirement letters, Embley said.

Come graduation time in May, she also shakes the hand of each of the approximate 3,300 graduates. Comeau calls it “one of my favorite times of the year.”

After retiring, Comeau said she and her husband will move to Washington State to be closer to her children and grandchildren. For years, she has planned visits, “around school board meetings,” she now feels a strong need to “reconnect with family.”

Her husband is already retired, she said. Comeau said at some point she may find some volunteer work, but for now, she plans to take it uncharacteristically slow.

“It will be a new adventure for us, really,” she said.

05/17/2012 - 1:00pm