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April 21, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Power pair: After decades of shaping education and health care in the county, Floyd Gonella and Margaret Taylor are moving on Power pair: After decades of shaping education and health care in the county, Floyd Gonella and Margaret Taylor are moving on (April 21, 2004)

By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer

In 1962, a high school football coach "plunged onto the field and almost became involved in fisticuffs" with an official who made a call he didn't like, the Pacifica Tribune reported.

The newspaper summarily praised him in an editorial, agreeing with sportswriters who had just named him Coach of the Year.

It wasn't the fight that impressed the Tribune writer -- it was the fact that the coach, Floyd Gonella, later admitted to his players that he'd been wrong to lash out.

"There is no place in football for such a thing as just happened. It was a bad example for me to set for you," the editorial quoted the coach as saying.

About 20 years later, Margaret Taylor, a newly appointed assistant director in the San Mateo County Health Services Agency, was certain she was seeing a new health crisis. People were dying and it wasn't clear why. Such were the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

"There were a lot of other counties in the state that didn't understand what was coming," said San Mateo County Supervisor Rich Gordon, who then ran a youth and family services agency. "Margaret's willingness to be involved early on and engage the health department in the issues really got us into a leadership role" in HIV and AIDS care.

The former football coach and former assistant health director have been married since 1979. And over the years, Floyd Gonella and Margaret Taylor have garnered plenty more kudos in their public service careers, playing major roles in shaping education and health care in San Mateo County.

The two met at the Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City, when Ms. Taylor was providing mental health counseling for teenagers and Mr. Gonella was superintendent. After 16 years in that position, Mr. Gonella was elected San Mateo County superintendent in 1990. He served three terms, then decided not to run again and instead, in 2003, took the reins at the troubled Ravenswood City School District, which has schools in east Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.

Meanwhile, Ms. Taylor joined the ranks of San Mateo County government in 1979 as a budget analyst in the county manager's office. She became assistant director of the health services agency in 1983, and finally health director in 1985.

In two careers packed with milestones, the year 2004 marks a significant turning point for both. Ms. Taylor left the health services agency earlier this month after 25 years with the county, and Mr. Gonella is stepping down from Ravenswood in June, after finishing his interim term of 18 months.

But don't try to throw them a retirement party. In the fashion of people who've been together a long time, the two balk at the word "retire" in almost the same way.

"I don't intend to quit working," says Ms. Taylor, 59, who plans to stay active in the public health arena, working on such issues as getting health coverage for uninsured children.

"I don't plan to leave education," says Mr. Gonella, affably declining to give his age. "I've talked to other districts and colleges who want me to teach. I don't want to go be a consultant somewhere; I want to work at some job that's on the line."

Managing an epidemic

In the Atherton home where Ms. Taylor and Mr. Gonella have lived for nearly 22 years, Nick, a 15-year-old Australian shepherd, watches as his younger shepherd pal, Babe, runs around in circles.

Polished in a suit and elegant jewelry, Ms. Taylor crouches down and dissolves into a playful growl: "Nicholas! Baby!" As Mr. Gonella leaves for work, she reminds him not to forget his lunch.

Books fill the shelves in the large living room, and Ms. Taylor describes herself as a voracious reader. Fittingly, one of the books that made a deep impression on her is "And The Band Played On" by Randy Shilts, about the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The evolution of AIDS colored Ms. Taylor's entire career with the health department, from its early days as a terrifying epidemic to its present as a chronic disease, when medications help people live with HIV.

"Hardly anyone gets hospitalized (for the virus) anymore," Ms. Taylor says. That means counties focus on other aspects of care, such as having outreach workers partner with people with HIV to help them stick to their complicated medication regimens.

Supervisor Rich Gordon says Ms. Taylor's early leadership on AIDS helped San Mateo County develop quality services comparable to more urban counties.

Although some had criticized the new assistant director for not having a medical background, Mr. Gordon says: "She's an incredible student of what public health was all about. Her natural curiosity leads her to seek out and learn very quickly about areas that she was not familiar with."

When AIDS program director John Conley began his job in 1996, he says, "I inherited a program that was extremely well put-together."

Mr. Conley says one of the program's strong points is that it integrates social and medical services; for example, it's simple for people to get medications and mental health counseling at one clinic.

AIDS wasn't the only serious disease to crash on the shores of the health department during Ms. Taylor's tenure, she says. "TB was eradicated, AIDS hit, TB came back. Then it was SARS. Public health used to be on the back burner. Now it's prominent."

New hospital and clinics

Another persistent menace for Ms. Taylor has been a budget crunch.

Especially recently, county officials worry about getting less funding from the state for their programs. But the San Mateo Medical Center, one of the few county-run hospitals left in California, has also created ongoing financial woes. Providing health care for low-income and uninsured patients may be noble, but it isn't exactly a business bursting with profits.

"The hospital does run in the red," Ms. Taylor says resignedly. "There are always budget issues."

Recently, the county hospital began accepting patients with private insurance, but long wait times make it hard to attract them, Ms. Taylor says.

The bills also poured in when the county rebuilt the hospital, a six-year, $125 million project that ended in 2000. There were delays and cost overruns, which Ms. Taylor attributed to such factors as heavy rain from El Nino and the county's being forced to compete with the San Francisco International Airport expansion for construction workers and material.

Ms. Taylor and other county officials ultimately separated the hospital from the rest of the health department in 2002 because it was draining money from other programs.

Today, officials are floating several ideas for the hospital, including having a private health-care company take it over or setting up a countywide health-care district supported by taxpayers.

Still, Ms. Taylor is proud of the airy, newly rebuilt hospital, which county officials say is the only hospital in the county meeting current seismic and safety standards.

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Atherton, fondly remembers working with Ms. Taylor as a San Mateo County supervisor on the future of the county hospital, and praises her leadership in creating a foundation to support the hospital.

"We plotted, we planned, we launched, we carried through," she says. "It was one of the most exciting times of my entire public service career."

Ms. Eshoo, a longtime friend and neighbor of Ms. Taylor and Mr. Gonella, also has praise for Ms. Taylor's work in establishing a clinic system, which allows residents to get health care at satellite offices rather than at the main hospital in San Mateo. Clinic locations include the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park, Daly City and the Coastside.

"It serves people right where they are; they don't have to pour onto a bus," Ms. Eshoo says, adding that clinics can also keep indigent residents from getting care in the most expensive place of all: the emergency room.

As for Ms. Taylor, she is happiest with her work with the youngest residents.

That includes the Children's Health Initiative, a program she piloted that offers health insurance to all county children, even if they're not legal U.S. residents.

Ms. Taylor is also pleased with the growth of Prenatal to Three, which includes having nurses go to the homes of new moms and dads to help them better perform their roles as parents. She freely admits to crying during parent-education graduations.

Recalling her counseling days with troubled teens, Ms. Taylor says, "I think I saw for too long the problems people had. We could've headed off their problems when they were young."

Forging bonds

For Tom Fitzpatrick, Floyd Gonella was the enemy.

As an English teacher in the Jefferson Union High School District, Mr. Fitzpatrick was a leader of a teachers' strike in the late 1970s, when Mr. Gonella was superintendent. The issues, he said, were "typical," such as class size, teachers' rights.

The strike was acrimonious and long. But Mr. Fitzpatrick was pleasantly surprised with the superintendent's actions after it was settled.

"The aftermath of a strike can be really bitter, and it was. Floyd went a long way towards repairing that. He was very pragmatic and open about whatever it would take to fix things," Mr. Fitzpatrick says. "Later on he gave me opportunities, despite that we had ostensibly been in enemy camps. That shows a largeness of character."

After Mr. Gonella became San Mateo County superintendent, he hired Mr. Fitzpatrick as assistant to the superintendent, a position he still holds.

"I started working with him in 1968. He's the only guy I've worked for almost all my life," Mr. Fitzpatrick says warmly.

Mr. Gonella took a hands-on approach as Jefferson superintendent, going to athletic events and dances, he says. It made sense for a man who had graduated from the district and had always wanted to be like his teachers and football coach.

When he became county superintendent, he took on a more administrative role and was less involved with the students. But Mr. Fitzgerald says Mr. Gonella consistently worked to improve education in larger ways, such as forging bonds with the library and park systems.

"He always was in the business of building bridges to various parts of the community, even early on, before administrators realized education didn't stop at 3 o'clock," Mr. Fitzgerald says. "He recognized that it wasn't enough to teach children to read and write; you had to ensure they had good nutrition and health, good mental health services."

In the trenches

The best football games are the cliff-hangers. Which may explain why this former football coach jumped at the chance to become interim superintendent in a chaotic school district where nothing had come easy.

After he decided not to run for a fourth term as county superintendent, Mr. Gonella wondered whether he was through with education. But he got the opportunity in 2003 to join the Ravenswood City School District, which had just gotten rid of its firebrand superintendent Charlie Mae Knight and was struggling with a legal battle over not meeting the needs of special education students. The financial quagmire was so deep that the state was on the verge of taking over the district.

The previous year, while still county superintendent, Mr. Gonella had written a report slamming the district's incidents of "mismanagement" as "pervasive, numerous, and long-standing." Now his work was cut out for him.

During an interview in his Ravenswood office, Mr. Gonella's voice rises with excitement as he talks about throwing himself into the district's woes head-first. Under his leadership, the district cut costs by cutting "redundant" positions, reorganizing the cafeteria and getting rid of pricey credit cards for staff, he says.

"One of the first things was to bring some semblance of order," he says.

As for special education, the district is working to integrate those students into mainstream classes by having support staff provide tutoring and behavioral help, Mr. Gonella says.

"Getting down into the trenches, really working at every level really satisfied me," he says. "There isn't a place in this district where I haven't stuck my nose."

Earlier this year, the district passed a parcel tax, with voters agreeing to pay an annual tax of $98 for five years to help recruit and retain quality teachers in a district that is known for its low salaries.

Recently, the Association of California School Administrators presented Mr. Gonella with the Ferd Kiesel Memorial Distinguished Service Award 2004, the highest statewide honor the group gives an individual.

Tough changes

The changes at Ravenswood, especially cutting jobs, haven't always been easy, and Mr. Gonella recalls large board meetings peppered by caustic words from people who were supportive of the prior Ravenswood administration.

Some, though, are thrilled. Martha Hanks, a third-grade teacher at Green Oaks Academy in East Palo Alto and president of the district's teachers' association, says Mr. Gonella has done an "excellent job."

"People are treated more fairly, and he's very professional, and that wasn't happening," says Ms. Hanks, who has taught in the district since 1980. "He's respectful. If you feel that you're worth something, you're going to do a better job."

Ravenswood is highly heterogeneous -- about 70 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American, and 5 percent Pacific Islander, by Mr. Gonella's estimate. But he says no one looked askance at him, as a white man coming in to take the lead.

"I'm going to knock on wood right now, but there was not one negative comment, bit, part because I was white," he says. "I believe that people looked at what I could bring to the job."

The ethnic make-up of Ravenswood creates one of its ongoing challenges: educating children who don't speak English. But Mr. Gonella, who was born into an Italian family in northern San Mateo County, also had to learn English as a second language. And he's hopeful about the district's future under a new superintendent.

"Kids at Ravenswood will be more prepared for increasing diversity in California," he says.

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