La Verne Magazine
Spring 2003


The Man Expected to Make Change

by Dimitri Watson
photography by Liz Lucsko


Dr. Robert Otto, Bonita Unified School District superintendent, is not only a patriarch of the school district, but also of the community for which he works.

At first glance the man behind the desk has a look of determination in his sharp dark eyes. His demeanor could easily be associated with a CEO in business. He speaks slowly and decisively, carefully choosing his words. This is no rookie; this is a veteran educator who has already established himself.

The new superintendent of the Bonita Unified School District, Dr. Robert Otto, is a man who gets straight to the point. Dr. Otto probably sees truth as the easiest way to deliver a message-especially to his five children, 11 grand children and the District's children for whom he is in charge. Married 41 years to his wife Sanya and living in San Dimas, Dr. Otto has been involved in school districts throughout his career, performing as superintendent in other districts before stepping up to the role for BUSD. He served as assistant superintendent of Business Services for two years prior. His motto, "Student progress is our business,"focuses on student achievement in academic skills. "This is something we devote our time, energy and resources to. The District is primarily there for the students, and the adults are there to help the students; it's all about the students," he says.

Dr. William Brinegar, assistant superintendent and director of personnel of BUSD, says enthusiastically, "Bob brought stability and focus to our organization. He has us back on track, focusing on our primary goal, which is student progress. Bob is quiet with a sense of humor; he is very professional and thoughtful. He thinks things through and gives you an angle on a subject that you haven't thought of. He is brilliant at analyzing things."

Dr. Otto received his bachelor's at the University of Nebraska, his hometown. An educational degree program at Chapman University in instructional system technology brought him to Southern California, he says. "I was fortunate to be selected in the year-long program." He holds two master's degrees, from Chapman University and Creighton University, and received his doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles.

His superintendent duties consist of being chief executive officer to 10,000 students and 1,000 employees. He oversees a $70 million budget in the District, which serves both La Verne and San Dimas children.

Dr. Otto notes that the District recently has been through contentious times with other leaders and acknowledges that districts go through various cycles when addressing issues. "Conflicts are a matter of perception rather then reality; our board is working together to solve conflicts," Dr. Otto says. "Budget is always an issue. A lot of details have to be worked on to put things into place. Some of the problems that occurred earlier this year dealt with the collective bargaining process. This process creates conflicts. You deal with these conflicts by looking at your options before you solve them."

Like the coach of a winning team, Dr. Otto exudes an aura of confidence in his own abilities. "He challenges you to think things through and provides questions you haven't thought of," Dr. Brinegar says. "He is tremendously hard working and will not be out worked. He works faster and will stay longer then anyone else if that's what it takes."

An endless search for District improvements is another facet of Dr. Otto's job. "We are always working on improving the assessment system," he says. "We have an excellent school district as a whole; all of our schools are considered high performing." BUSD holds 13 school sites, including two high schools, one middle school and eight elementary schools, all split equally between La Verne and San Dimas. The Star Center houses two schools: Vista School, an alternative program and Chaparral High School, a continuing education school.

While most California school districts are struggling to raise academic performance, BUSD has 12 schools that scored a minimum of 650 points on the 2000-'01 California Academic Performance Index, identifying it as one of California's highest performing districts. Many of the schools in the District scored in excess of 800 points. These average scores are based on the 2001-'02 API rankings for both the California Standardized Tests and the national Stanford-9 test. "Dr. Otto has a good handle on our organization; we are doing greater things then we ever have. As to the API scores, we haven't been doing too badly," Dr. Brinegar says. "I think we will make great strides."

To ensure continued success, the administration is in the process of aligning the District's curriculum to newly adopted state standards, as well as gaining up-to-date resources-from textbooks to school facilities. "The facilities for the most part are reasonably nice, but modifications and improvements will be planned," Dr. Otto assures.

The Bonita Unified School District's future is clearly in the capable hands of Dr. Otto whose leadership skills will help the District continue its rise to the top."This is a District where people like to come, stay and continue to work," Dr. Otto says.