School board president P.J. Kapfhammer described the decision as a “no-brainer” after what he called “a tidal wave” of community support for Rivera’s appointment.
“You couldn’t go to Kroger, you couldn’t go on Facebook, you couldn’t go anywhere,” said the school board president. “Every person said: ‘What are you waiting for?’ We want Lonny. We know we got our guy. We are ready for launch.”
“All I know is ever since I’ve been in education, my heart has been for kids,” Rivera said after his appointment, while choking back tears of joy. “My goal is always to make people better. That’s my goal here—to make every person in their position better at what they do, instill a love of learning for the kids and in the staff members, where they can’t wait to come to work.”
Rivera agreed to a four-year contract with an annual salary of just over $119,000—the same salary as his predecessor Michael Zalar, who departed to lead the North Olmsted school district in suburban Cleveland. There will be no annual salary increases.
“It allows you to make the tough decisions. It allows you to put kids first and make that tough decision,” explained Kapfhammer of the contract’s length. “If you don’t have four years, you’re more worried about whether you’re going to be renewed.”
“It’s a big step. It’s a huge honor, when you hear people who knew you from when you were a child and people are watching and knowing there’s a level of trust and excitement that I’m coming back to help and lead the district,” said Rivera. “It was truly heart-touching, probably one of the best moments of my life.”
Rivera’s tenure ended June 28 as principal at Wayne Trail Elementary School in Maumee. He will start his new superintendent duties Aug. 1. He intends to spend the next few weeks with his family, as well as strategizing the future of the district and preparing or the start of the new academic year.
Rivera has worked in the Toledo, Oregon, and Maumee school districts for 17 years, but grew up in Oregon. He called it the pinnacle of his career and has no intention of leaving.
“It seems like I’ve been on a journey in great places with great people,” he said. “But truly, to be home where my roots have been, that’s where I’d like to be able to stay—to watch kids grow, to watch a community grow, to be able to see and be able to be a part o so many people’s lives. That’s a dream of mine.”
The school board president stated his belief that a hometown product will only help to advance the school district, gain community involvement for improvements, and reach out to parents, families, and business owners.
“What you gain is respect. When he walks into a room, there’s instant respect,” explained Kapfhammer. “Regardless of whether you agree with his decisions, you have to respect the man that he is. So going out into the community to gain support, he’s going to have an easier path than most people. He’s always put kids first. He would sacrifice anything for these kids—and people know that.”
“This is my heart. My home is here,” Rivera told the crowd. “I will do my very best not to let anybody down. You have my word that I’ll give everything I have.”
The school board president got to know Rivera personally when he was principal at Coy Elementary School in Oregon, because his kids attended there. The school constructed a new playground, and he related a story where Rivera was on-site “at the crack of dawn and the last one to leave,” working alongside everyone else until he “was filthy dirty.”
“He doesn’t say much; he leads by example. He doesn’t talk a good game; he walks a good game,” said Kapfhammer. “He won’t say something and not do it. In the interview he told us he would run through walls for kids, break down barriers for kids to learn.”
Kapfhammer laid out some goals the school board will expect of Rivera and the district’s administrative team over the next few years: students better prepared for college and career, and a district report card that reaches the highest level: excellent with distinction.
“We want the best for Oregon’s kids. The structure is there,” he said. “He’s the guy to lead that charge. We’re ready to go right now.”
Rivera admitted he was never a good student as a young man, encouraged by his parents to pursue a skilled trade “because college was not in their inventory.” He is the son of a migrant worker of Mexican heritage who picked tomatoes and cotton.
“But because of God and my faith, because of athletics, doors opened up for me,” Rivera admitted. “Once I got to college, I learned that this stuff isn’t so bad after all. But what I have from all this is I know what it’s like to struggle. For a lot of kids, it’s not easy. They need somebody to come alongside and say ‘I understand. We’re going to help you get this. We’re going to point you in the right direction.’ It didn’t come easy for me. But you work hard and you don’t give up.”
Rivera’s father Abraham watched with a broad smile as his son shook hands with the public, school board members, and other educators.
“I’ve got to praise God for this—it’s a dream-come-true,” he said of his son’s rise from humble beginnings. “To watch my kid become a doctorate in education is a great blessing. I never thought that would ever happen. But it’s all possible in America, the melting pot of the world.”
But Rivera’s father admitted his son’s hard work and faith are the keys to his present success, as well as avoiding the pitfalls that seem to plague many Latino youth from achieving larger goals and dreams.
“You know how much trouble he’s given me? None,” said the elder Rivera. “If ever there was such a thing as a perfect son, Lonny would be it.”
Rivera’s parents met in the second grade in Jerusalem Twp. and now have been married 47 years. His father did not graduate high school until the age of 20 and later earned an associate’s degree in business. But Rivera still goes to his father for advice on big decisions, which the elder Rivera stated that his “son makes better decisions than I do.”
Rivera stated his approach will be to provide kids “career-ready” programs, as well as a college prep curriculum in order to offer them choices beyond high school. He explained that more business partnerships will be the key to make that happen.
Rivera beat out one other finalist: Deborah Piotrowski, the superintendent of the Xenia Community Schools near Dayton.