On June 28, Karen DeLano's tenure at Auburn City Schools will come to an end.
DeLano has spent the past seven years as superintendent of the school system, dedicating the majority of her time and energy to the position, which she says is "24/7."
Earlier this week in her office, DeLano sat at a table by the window and reflected on her time as superintendent. The conversation would frequently circle back to the people she has been able to work with.
"It gets a little harder every day," she said, thinking ahead to when she will say goodbye to staff. "Our business is all about relationships. I really do feel like the group of administrators that we have now is very strong, and I'm very proud of the team we've put together."
In her retirement, DeLano plans to spend more time with family, many of whom are local, and is looking forward to having a little more freedom.
"I really just want to be spontaneous for a while," she said. "If I read about something I want to go experience, I want to be able to do it and not have to be concerned that I’m not doing my job."
She admits retirement will be an adjustment.
"I'm just curious as to how July 1 is going to feel," she said. But she doesn't seem too worried about it; ACS is in a healthy place and has a strong group of administrators, she said.
"I watched as we had changes in the city over the last few months and really did a strong analysis of the school system and where things are, looking at our facilities plan and where we are in that process, and I feel very strongly that the school system is in a good place, and it was a good time for a transition," she said. "It wasn’t an easy decision, I will say that, but I felt like it was time."
DeLano stepped into the job in 2012 after working previously at different school systems as a teacher, principal and, most recently, assistant superintendent at Vestavia Hills City Schools. She had been searching for a way to get back to Auburn.
"It was really good to know that I'd be here with family, with parents getting older. ... There were just a lot of really good feelings about being back home, so to speak," she said. "But also, it's a big job. And you know that when you take it. So there was a little bit of anxiousness, or nervousness."
The first couple of years were fast-paced, she said, as she worked to not only get to know the people in Central Office, but to become familiar with the schools and the changing community.
"Every day is a new day, and you're going full-speed, and that's how I remember the first month or so, really the first couple of years," she said. "Trying to get to as many events as you can, learning as much as you can, meeting people. It's a real flurry at first."
And at that time, ACS had just experienced staggering growth.
"When I got here, the school system had just experienced some very large growth numbers. You know, 400, 500 — which really hits hard. I mean, that’s the size of an elementary school, 500," she said.
During her tenure, student enrollment increased by 1,745 students; the 2018-19 school year closed with 8,845. To best provide for the students, DeLano leaned on experts and data, she said. She worked with demographers and facilities experts to carve out a plan by which the school system could move forward.
A facilities plan was adopted after analyzing projections and undergoing an extensive planning process complete with public meetings and input, and from that plan has come two completed projects — the new Auburn High School and Creekside Elementary School.
The trick has been to not under-build nor over-build, but to find the "sweet spot," DeLano said.
"It’s not that easy, but if you use your resources wisely I think you can hit it pretty close," she said. "And that’s what our facilities plan that we have, I think, serves well. But as I’ve always told people, you have to look at it every year. When we first approved that plan, the second high school was sooner than it is now. That’s what my motto has been: We’re not going to build until we know we have to."
With an ever-growing student body and decisions needing to be made at every turn, DeLano said it becomes important for a superintendent to remember her main goal — providing for "the kids."
"It's very easy for the adult needs or wishes to get in the way, but what I try to stay with is, when I leave the office in the afternoon, if I have an unresolved issue, it's when I get home and can get in the quiet — I can find the kids in it," she said. "And just making sure you're around kids, going to sporting events, which I love to do, going to the plays and the fine arts performances, just being in schools and watching them in the classrooms. That's the way I think I managed that."
DeLano would often use spare time to poke her head into classrooms, and every month she scheduled appointments to check in with school principals. When she first started the job, she made it a point to be in the schools every day that she was in town.
"I’ve wanted always for the principals and teachers to feel like I was trying to make those decisions that are best for kids, but based on what the needs were," she said. "If they don’t see you and they don’t know that you know what’s going on, then they can’t trust that."
Sitting in her office, DeLano struggles with the idea of legacy. She tries "not to let it be about me," she says, adding that she hopes she did always prioritize the students.
She remembers what a Vestavia Hills City Schools board member said to her before she moved back to Auburn in 2012. He was an Alabama fan and would pick on her for her Auburn allegiance.
"He said, 'I hate you're going to Auburn, but I know you're going to a good place, so just go down there and try not to mess it up,' " she said. "So, I hope my legacy is that I maintained the excellence that this city is accustomed to."