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Monday profile: Bill Sonneman

Submitted by on 1, April 20, 2009 – 6:00 amNo Comment

4Bill Sonneman has been a familiar face to parents whose kids have passed through Alameda’s public schools. He put in 13 years here, starting out as a vice principal at Alameda High School and then spending six years apiece running Will C. Wood Middle School and Encinal High. Retirement didn’t signal the end of his commitment to kids: He’s involved in a number of youth-oriented causes, which include service as president of the Alameda Education Foundation. And that’s been more work than he ever imagined.

The foundation has suffered financial difficulties that include the loss of $40,000 it was supposed to get from its online payment vendor, Count Me In Corp which forced it to pink-slip its executive director last year. But Sonneman says he’s laid out a road map to recovery for AEF – while serving on a number of different boards (and remodeling his kitchen) at the same time.

How did you end up in Alameda?
My wife was going to work at the California School for the Blind, which is in Berkeley, and we were going to live in Berkeley. But we couldn’t afford anything. And a friend said, why don’t you go to Alameda? I had been to Mass a few times at St. Joe’s. So we found a flat by St. Joe’s, and a couple of years later we bought a house. And raised our three daughters. They’re all products of public schools.

Why did you get into education?
When I was a kid, I played sports. I was hurt one year and ended up coaching a team, and all the parents said how good I was with the kids. I started working with day camps and summer camps. I thought I wanted to be an attorney at one time. But this was the right thing to do.

If you worked for both high schools, who do you cheer for at games?
When I worked at Alameda High, I rooted for Alameda High. And it was a little weird rooting against Encinal at that time, because I had a daughter who went to Encinal. When Alameda plays, I root for Alameda. When Encinal plays, I root for Encinal.

What are all the things you’re doing now?
I’m president of the AEF board, which is a much bigger job than I thought it was going to be. I’m on the city’s recreation and parks commission. I’m with Teach for America, and have four teachers I’m in charge of. I do some work with the California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees all high school sports. We remodeled our kitchen too.

Obviously, this has been a transitional year for AEF.
I was being asked to be on a lot of different things. Schools are still where my heart is. The allure is, we’re going to hit all the schools – Adopt-a-Classroom, programs for all kids. I don’t think I realized the financial challenges that it had back in July when I joined. And certainly, we took a big hit with this (online payment vendor) problem. I really was attracted to working with Brooke (Briggance), who is just bright and talented and articulate. And then having to let her go was certainly not a lot of fun. We just did an appeal. I just put together a PowerPoint presentation to take to different organizations to present what we’ve done, where we’re going, what it looks like financially.

What’s the thrust of the organization now?
I think it’s moved a little away from the advocacy. Really into maybe more grassroots, with program and fundraising. To support those programs I think we’ve worked at really trying to focus on the visibility of AEF in the community, as a viable, positive organization that the whole community could support.

One of the charges against AEF is that its programs are not meted out equally. What are you doing to ensure equitability?
We had Measure H. I was real involved in that too. I believed in the parcel tax. So this became this big political thing. So then, it was like Measure H and AEF were married. I think a lot of people who were active in AEF were active in Measure H. But that’s because people active in AEF were also active in schools. Then when I got on and they had all these financial issues, I realized we had to separate those things. What I have tried to do is to be the visible person to shout the praises of why we need a strong foundation.

What are those?
A foundation should have the ability to bring grants and funds into the school district, because grants and funders are not going to be able to just give that money to the district. We’re coupling the school district and the foundation, and that fundraising is part of that. We may be moving our offices to the district’s offices, because we’re getting kicked out of Longfellow.

You’re moving to the district office?
That’s our hope. In order for us to work closely with the school district. I like the advocacy part, but I think we were getting caught up in complaining too much about the state. And we need to make the best we can with the stuff we’ve got here.

So what is AEF doing now?
The enrichment classes are back and they’re strong. We had to go away from registering online, which was a big effort from December to now. It’s a paper thing, but it’s worked out okay. The Adopt-a-Classroom program is probably one of my favorite things to do, because I can go to a classroom and give teachers $500. We’ve had 175 adoptions in two years. Middle school sports is good. We just moved into track. We’ve had some nice events. We had an event at the movie theater on Valentine’s Day. AEF got $1,000, and the Boys & Girls Club got $1,000. The theater now has some plan for the summer on movie tickets for the kids they can sell us. So we’ve created a partnership there. We’ve got the Run 4 Education at Towne Centre. If we got 150 to participate or 200, we’d be thrilled. We have our ongoing teacher store. I’m doing a weekly message for AEF. I get a lot of nice e-mails back. I think that was a problem. People want to know what AEF is doing. My plan is to expand the board, kind of broadening the base. There was a criticism it was only people from Franklin.

What do you think you need to do going forward?
I think to get us on a consistent, ongoing financial footing that we can expand and have our programs grow. It’s my first year of being president, I’m sure I’m going to do it next year. We’ll continue to advocate for equalization of funding (between school districts). I’d like to see us get in league with the PTAs. I’d like to see us get some grants. And we do need to have some paid staff.

Anything to add?
I think we have to, in our community, look at our local school and also look beyond that to the overall school district, and how we can serve all kids. I think that’s the mission of the AEF.

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