Former Palo Alto superintendent Phillips dies

Don Phillips, 62, led Palo Alto Unified School District from 1997 to 2001

Don Phillips, superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District from 1997 to 2001, has died.

Phillips, who retired in June after nine years as superintendent of the Poway Unified School District in the San Diego area, suffered cardiac arrest Thursday and died in a hospital Friday morning (Dec. 3). He was 62.

(Read the North County Times' story about Phillips' retirement from the Poway Unified School District)

Kevin Skelly, Palo Alto's current superintendent and a close friend of Phillips, was in San Diego Friday with the Phillips family. Skelly had worked as an assistant superintendent under Phillips before coming to Palo Alto as superintendent in 2007.

"Don was my great friend, my mentor for nearly two decades and a constant source of inspiration and wisdom," Skelly said in a brief e-mail Friday night.

Former Palo Alto school board president Mandy Lowell credited Phillips with getting a floundering Building For Excellence, the building program from a 1995 district facilities bond measure, back on track.

"He had an audit done when he arrived and it found they wouldn't be able to complete construction on all 16 schools, so Don restructured it to create a priority system for getting schools renovated," Lowell recalled.

"He really made sure that every school in the district received benefits from the bond program."

Phillips also presided over the re-opening of Terman Middle School, and created an AVID college-readiness program in Palo Alto.

"Don was the kind of guy that when somebody walked into his office anxious or angry, they'd leave reassured," Lowell said.

"He was a very good listener and made careful comments back. He always had a bigger picture in mind."

Phillips, who graduated from Gunn High School, had served as superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District before coming to Palo Alto.

A graduate of Whitman College, he began his education career as a social studies teacher in Washington state before earning a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he wrote a dissertation titled "The Principal as Effective Leader."

He was a middle- and high-school principal in Massachusetts and California before becoming associate superintendent of the Vista (Calif.) Unified School District.

He was active in professional organizations, writing and public speaking.

"He was very local, and understood Palo Alto better than most superintendents who come into it new," Lowell said.

"PAUSD searched around the nation to find the best superintendent for us and ended up attracting a local person from a neighboring community who'd grown up in our community."

Phillips left Palo Alto after four years because he wanted to gain experience in a larger, urban school district, which Poway provided, Lowell said. Poway has an enrollment of approximately 33,000 students, nearly triple that of Palo Alto.

He was succeeded in Palo Alto by Mary Frances Callan, who served until 2007.

Phillips is survived by his wife Robyn and sons Blake and Reid.

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Like this comment
Posted by Fond Memories
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 3, 2010 at 11:16 pm

What terribly sad news. Don Phillips was a wonderful man and a great leader. He has never been forgotten by those of us who were privileged enough to work alongside him or have children in school during his tenure. Those were the days...

To his family, my deepest and sincere condolences. So very, very sad.

Like this comment
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 4, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Don was my best friend growing up here. He was the drummer in a number of rock bands we put together in middle school and high school and was my doubles partner in many junior tennis tournaments.

Most of you know him through his professional career, but, for the record, he and I played in the very first rock band to be auctioned "live" on KQED's fundraising auction back in the early 60's (I was lead guitar/singer). While we were on air -- in matching sweaters, no less -- a SF band heard us and called to see if they could come on the next night, which they did. The band was Big Brother and the Holding Company so, in a very real way, Don and I got Janis Joplin here first TV gig.

He will be missed.

Like this comment
Posted by Eric Benhamou
a resident of Atherton
on Dec 6, 2010 at 4:35 pm

I am an ALF class mate of Don from class VIII. I have the deepest respect for Don as a professional and as a human being, and the fondest memories of our class experience together some 13 years ago. My deepest condoleances to Don's family.

Like this comment
Posted by Former PAUSD Principal
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Dec 7, 2010 at 7:37 am

This is another reminder of just how precious and short life is. Don hired me , as a principal into PAUSD, back in 2000. This man had incredible integrity and was a great leader. A real class act. He busted his butt for tens of thousands of kids over a long career in education. Five months into his retirement he passes. So very sad. Don represented a time in PAUSD when the focus was on students, integrity, support, collegiality and respect. Dr. Irv Rollins was his Assistant Superintendent and another class act. Back then the district ran more like a fine Swiss watch.

Only 3 other entries have been made here on this blog. Very unusual for Palo Alto. How quickly we forget.

Like this comment
Posted by Debbie Ford-Scriba
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm

I knew Don slightly from my decade-long tenure at the Palo Alto Weekly. He was indeed an extraordinarily kind and perceptive individual, and is mourned by many, including the members of American Leadership Forum - Silicon Valley's Class VIII. A scholarship fund has been established in Don's memory at the Poway Unified School District in San Diego. Contributions to the "Don Phillips Scholarship" fund can be mailed to PUSD/Don Phillips Scholarship, Poway Unified School District, 15250 Avenue of Science, San Diego, CA 92128.

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