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(photo by File Photo)

PACIFICA, CALIF — Former Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Dianne Talarico died this week after a battle with lung cancer.

She was 53.

Talarico replaced former Superintendent John Deasy in July 2006, and served the district during a tumultuous two years marked by success in promoting programs for under-privileged students as well as conflict over special education.

She left her post at the Canton City Schools in Ohio, where she served for superintendent for five years, to work at SMMUSD.

Talarico was passionate about children, said Chief Academic Officer Dr. Sally Chou, and that passion shone through in the goals she set and how she approached them.

The pair worked together as associate superintendents in San Francisco for a time.

“She supported the kids, especially those not as fortunate and privileged,” Chou said.

Talarico was a driving force behind the SMMUSD’s Young Collegians program, which takes students with grade point averages of about 2.0 and supports them through college-level coursework at Santa Monica College.

The first cohort of those students will graduate high school this year. Each of them will go on to higher education, and many will be the first member of their families to do so, Chou said.

“Her focus was closing the achievement gap,” Chou said. “She didn’t want the kids to fall behind.”

Talarico also helped out in more personal ways, visiting Olympic High School and teaching students there to make jewelry, which was a pastime of hers, Chou said.

Controversy rocked the district during her tenure, although much of it had percolated under the surface before she arrived.

She was at the helm when the district’s chief financial officer, Winston Braham, resigned after refusing to sign off on a financial report Talarico approved. His resignation helped bring to light the district’s use of confidentiality agreements, a policy enacted by former Superintendent John Deasy to cut down on costs associated with providing special education services. Parents of special education students were forbidden from discussing the services their children received.

The use of the agreements was heavily criticized by members of the City Council, which temporarily withheld thousands of dollars in financial aid to the district, and many parents, who felt there use created a culture of fear within the district. The council eventually gave the schools the cash — around $530,000 — after it was convinced that reforms were being made.

Talarico also weathered the arrest of Thomas Beltran, an ESL teacher at Lincoln Middle School who plead guilty to sexual assaulting female students. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

She left the district in 2008, citing a need to be nearer to her husband in Northern California, and became superintendent at a school district in Burlingame.

Beyond her achievements and struggles, many in the district will remember Talarico for her ready smile and can-do personality.

“She would roam the whole office, asking ‘How are you doing?’” said Board of Education member Maria Leon Vasquez. “She was all over this community. I will always remember her for her great smile and compassion.”

Even when the going was tough and the obstacles loomed large, Talarico had a humor and strength that could conquer adversity, Chou said.

“She would say, ‘Non c’é la faccio piu!’ (I can’t take this anymore!),” Chou said. “Then she would laugh, and start all over again.”

Talarico is survived by her husband, four stepchildren, mother, brother and sister.

The family is arranging a celebration-of-life service. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Burlingame Community for Education Foundation, P.O. Box 117730, Burlingame, CA 94011

ashley@www.smdp.com

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