Lopez Says it’s Time for an MCOE Game Changer
When Richard Lopez talks about his purpose in education, and his intent to become the new Merced County Superintendent of Schools, he likes to emphasize the word “ALL.”
He says he’s a “champion for ALL students.” He says he wants to improve “ALL schools.”
“Merced County needs a game changer,” Lopez says, “an innovator with a new set of eyes to keep up with the ever-changing educational world who sees what is needed to improve all schools in Merced County.”
Lopez faces current County Superintendent Steve Tietjen in the race for the top spot at the Office of Education. Voters will decide who gets the job in the days leading up to the June 5 Primary when the results start to come in. It’s apparently a two-man race to be decided in June after it was revealed in recent days that candidate Gabby Sanchez, a Delhi middle school teacher, was not going to appear on the ballot as she had thought. (See story on Page 4.)
“It’s time,” Lopez says. “You see the lack of educational results for this county — the data is there for everyone to see. We can go back and look at the old API scores (Academic Performance Index) all the way until now, and we see the same thing: Merced County schools are not meeting the grade. That’s a fact. And we need to change that, and we have the opportunity. We can support our struggling schools, and transform them.”
Lopez is 48, and he’s been in the education field for more than 27 years. He is currently the superintendent of the Merced River School District — a small, rural area that’s about a 10-minute drive north of Merced, in the unincorporated communities of Hopeton and Amsterdam. He’s also sits on the board of the Merced Union High School District as a trustee in District 5.
The candidate is in his fourth year on the board, and he says the experience has provided him a lens to see what he and his Merced River School District staff have to do to prepare his elementary school students for high school and beyond.
The MUHSD board services more than 10,000 high school students, and more than 1,000 teachers with an average budget of $130 million in recent years. Lopez praises the progress the high school district has made in Career Technical Education, or CTE, by providing new, fast-track pathways for high school graduates to attend Merced College and technical schools for job training. He said his experience on the board will help prepare him in the role of county superintendent.
Lopez was hired as superintendent / principal of the Merced River School District in 2015. A few years before the community passed a bond measure to make improvements to the school facilities. Under Lopez, the district ended up consolidating its two school sites by moving the K-3 grades at Hopeton School in Snelling to Washington School, and making the latter school a K-8 campus. The bond funding helped revitalize the Washington campus with updated infrastructure, a modernized computer lab, new paint on the buildings and an added jungle gym structure. Lopez said he maximized use of all the funding. A separate purchasing agreement with the district allowed for the construction of a new solar array to 100 percent power the school. It’s expected to go online soon. The old Hopeton School is being leased out to the county for programs to help students with disabilities.
Says Lopez, “You can be a superintendent of a small school district, and that doesn’t mean there is less to do. As a matter of fact there is more to do. Most superintendents have staff members under them that oversee instructional services, budget services, support services. … Small schools don’t. As a superintendent of a small district, you are the CBO. You are the instructional leader. You are the vice principal. You are the principal. And you wear all of these hats throughout the day. You play all of those roles all the time, and so those experiences keep you grounded and they keep you informed on the day-to-day operations. They keep you as part of the team. You may have a vision in place, but you are actually part of the vision that will be transforming the district.”
Transformation is what Lopez says he was a part of when he was principal at Planada Elementary School from 2007 to 2015. He was hired by former Superintendent Steve Gomes when he worked in that district. Lopez says the school achieved an 800+ API score for two consecutive years under the old state standard system, and it dug its way out of a county proficiency program. Planada Elementary was also nominated at one point for the national Blue Ribbon School Award.
“I helped create a system of belief that we could transform our kids in Planada, and keep the focus on success. I’m very proud of that. The staff could see our vision, and they were able to help fulfill it.”
Planada is also where he got the idea of “Superman,” the superhero character, as positive reinforcement. His office at Washington School is filled with Superman memorabilia and images. “They inspire me,” Lopez says.
Lopez was born and raised in Merced, with humble beginnings in a single-parent household. He graduated from Merced High in 1988, and immediately joined the Army. He was stationed in Germany, and completed his tour in 1991. He used the military’s college fun and GI bill to study at MercedCollege and then Chapman University for his BA degree and teaching credential. He later earned his administrative credential at Stanislaus State.
Lopez says over the years he has worked as a paraeducator, bus driver, custodian, coach, support teacher, teacher, and teacher on special assignment. He started his career at Washington School as a paraeducator, and from there, went to teach at Winton Middle School. He ended up becoming vice-principal of the school from 2004-2007, before going on to the Planada School District.
He is married to Leanne, his wife of 24 years, and they have three children, Joey, Rachel and Vanessa. Joey works at Sysco, and Vanessa is a freshman at Sacramento State.
Rachel is 23 and is currently part of an adult with disabilites program. She was born with developmental delays and she is totally blind. She has made the pages of the County Times before as an athlete in the county’s Special Olympics, and as a soccer player in a McSwain league.
Regarding Rachel, and the fact that the MCOE Superintendent’s job oversees the county’s Special Education Department, Lopez offered this:
“We owe it to every single child in our county to give them the services that they deserve,” he said. “As parents, my wife and I were the strongest advocates for Rachel, and the services she was entitled to. She went through the Merced River District, and we struggled through it all the way. And we get it. In this rural area, there is a low incidence of children with blindness and developmental disabilities. Nevertheless, we needed more services. As a sitting superintendent in this district, I see what’s going on with the services the county can provide. With Special Education, we need to ensure that children are getting the services according to their Individualized Education Program (IEP). If not, we are doing wrong.”