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Fred Navarro to retire as superintendent of Newport-Mesa school district

Dr. Fred Navarro speaks during a time capsule event at the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices on June 2, 2017.
Dr. Fred Navarro speaks during a time capsule burial event at the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices on June 2, 2017.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District has received and accepted a letter of retirement from Dr. Fred Navarro, the district superintendent.

District spokeswoman Annette Franco confirmed that the NMUSD board of education accepted Navarro’s letter of retirement on Friday.

“It has been the highlight of my nearly 40-year career in education to serve the Board of Newport-Mesa Unified School District,” Navarro said in a statement released by the district. “The Board’s focus on students, its commitment to the community and its unwavering support of parents makes NMUSD a beacon of excellence among all districts in Orange County and the state.”

Navarro was appointed to serve as district superintendent in 2012. His last day serving in the position will be July 15.

Deputy Supt. Russell Lee-Sung will serve as acting superintendent beginning July 16. Board President Martha Fluor said that Lee-Sung has been with the district for three years and currently works as its Chief Academic Officer.

Formerly the superintendent of the Lennox School District in Los Angeles County, Navarro began his career as a teacher in the Long Beach Unified School District. He earned his teaching credential at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He also earned his doctorate at UCLA.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Trustees decided Tuesday to cancel in-person graduations at its six high schools in favor of a virtual commencement.

Navarro’s tenure did not go without trial, including at the end. With the coronavirus pandemic looming over the final months of the 2019-20 school year, the decision was made to have online graduations for all four of the district’s high schools — Corona del Mar, Costa Mesa, Estancia and Newport Harbor.

“When you start talking to families and you start talking to teachers and you start talking to students and administration, we could not guarantee, and Dr. Navarro was really clear about that, we couldn’t guarantee that all of our kids would participate,” Fluor said. “[We could not guarantee] that all of our kids would have equal access and that we wouldn’t be placing them in jeopardy in terms of social distancing.

“That was the decision, and they worked really hard over the period of time, and not to mention that at the time, they were all looking at the guidelines from the Orange County Department of Health, and the very stringent requirements.”

Newport-Mesa District Supt. Fred Navarro writes that while an in-person graduation is a major milestone, the district came to the recommendation that this year’s commencement would be broadcast online, so that students and their families can participate in a safe manner.

Fluor added that Navarro’s impact was felt beyond the high school level of education, praising the importance that the superintendent placed on mental health.

“I think one of his greatest contributions is the prioritization that mental health is of importance for our students and our families,” Fluor said. “We’ve increased the number of social workers and behavioral specialists, not only at the high school level, but all the way down to the elementary school level, so that we are really stressing our mental health needs in our school district.”

Regarding athletics, Navarro had his supporters. Estancia athletic director Nate Goellrich is grateful for the district’s help in upgrading facilities.

“I’ve definitely seen a lot of growth in our district, and definitely on the athletics side, he has made sure of upgrading our athletics facilities,” Goellrich said. “You’ve seen it, just at our site, with refurbishing Jim Scott [Stadium], with the new tennis courts going in, the 50-meter pool. You’ve got the new Davidson [Field] over at Newport Harbor, so from an athletics standpoint, it was really a pleasure working with him and his understanding of the value of athletics and the value of having great facilities for that.”

Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley said she believes a diverse group of people should be consulted as the district looks for new leadership.

“I wish the superintendent well in his retirement,” Foley said. “I encourage the current board to actively engage the community stakeholders, including parents, alumni, students, coaches, business leaders, elected officials and community volunteers, in the search for the next leader of the district.

“There are several members retiring this year, so I hope they will spend the time gathering input and let the new board decide on new leadership. Now more than ever, we need to drill down and create lots of opportunities to hear from diverse voices about what’s needed for a modern public education system.”

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