'He saved the district'

Superintendent Leon J. Campo named the Herald's 2016 Person of the Year

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The walls of the Leon J. Campo Salisbury Center are adorned with paintings and drawings done by students from throughout the East Meadow School District. Black-and-white self-portraits and colorful crayon creations lead to the office of Campo, the district’s interim superintendent.

There’s a fireplace in his office. Teddy bears and other stuffed animals sit in front of it. “There’s a warm, homey and comfortable feel when you walk in,” said Donna La Scala, president of the PTA Council. The doors are always open, the lights are always on, and there’s always chatter in the halls.

Campo, 73, had an administrative role in the district for 35 years. He started his career there as the assistant business administrator, and became superintendent in 2006. He retired in 2009 to travel with his wife, Michele, but returned in 2015 to become the interim superintendent, after the district had experienced a series of problems His comeback, officials say, has done nothing less than breathe life back into East Meadow schools.

For all that Leon Campo has done to advance the district’s educational system and ensure that local children receive a first-rate education, the East Meadow Herald is proud to name him its 2016 Person of the Year.

“He had a very open discussion and opinion policy,” Gregory Bottari, Barnum Woods Elementary School’s principal, said of Campo’s three-plus decades as an East Meadow administrator. “He heard everyone’s opinion and he worked with everyone to come to a solution to any problem or issue.”

After Campo retired, new leadership took over, and that, La Scala said, was when a wall went up. “Those times were very dark for the district,” she said.

“The district spiraled out of control after Mr. Campo retired,” Bottari added, saying that the district headed down the wrong path and children’s needs were unmet. Teachers and staff members were unhappy as well, he said.

Staff members’ voices were not heard, parents were ignored and Freedom of Information Act requests went unanswered, La Scala said. Doors were closed in the Campo Center, and chatter was no longer heard in the halls. “It felt empty,” she said. “We felt unwelcomed and unwanted.”

And a literal wall was built in Campo’s office, covering the fireplace.

In 2015, when the superintendent’s position once again opened up, parents, staff and faculty called Campo for help. “I knew they needed me,” he said, “so I came back.”

The very first thing he saw was the wall in front of the fireplace, La Scala said. “He was so upset,” she recalled, “because that fireplace was built many years ago by a group of special-needs students. He said to me, ‘Donna, they covered it up. They covered the children’s work.’”

La Scala said that Campo truly cares for every child in the district, but has “a soft heart for the special-needs group.” He had the wall torn down to expose the fireplace once again.

“He saved the district,” La Scala said. “Not only did he take the literal wall down, but he also took all of the walls down in the district and allowed the parents to voice their opinions. We felt heard and we felt comfortable again. We felt our children’s concerns were being addressed, and the district was back on the right path.” 

When Campo returned as interim superintendent for the 2015-16 school year, he hit the ground running. On his first day back, the district published a position paper, “Where We Stand and Why,” which detailed its stance on the Common Core State Standards.

“A large factor of my return on an interim basis was the well-being of the children,” Campo said. “The children who were not taking the exams were being treated differently compared to those who were taking the exams, and that just wasn’t right.” 

Since Campo returned, La Scala said, the district has started to heal and place trust in the administration again. 

Under Campo’s leadership, the district proposed the first-ever joint bond with the East Meadow Public Library, a partnership that he deemed “historic,” in November. More recently, the Board of Education adopted the Hindu holiday Diwali and the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha as official school holidays. 

Helen Meittinis, president of the Community Association of Stewart Avenue and a longtime community liaison in the Bowling Green PTA, said that the community respects Campo so much that the administrative building was named for him 10 years ago. 

“He’s built a foundation of transparency, trust and open communication again,” La Scala said. “It’ll be very sad when he retires in June.”

The Board of Education is now searching for Campo’s successor. When he leaves, though, he will only be a phone call away to offer guidance and support to the new superintendent, he said. 

“I live in East Meadow,” he added with a laugh. “I’m not going anywhere.”