First published in the Oct. 15 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
This week’s school board meeting kicked off with a bittersweet farewell to Suzie Abajian, who officially resigned from the panel Wednesday because she is moving out of town.
Abajian, a former educator for the South Pasadena Unified School District, announced the decision last month. She was first elected to the Board of Education in 2015 and was handily re-elected a year ago to serve through 2024; however, Abajian said the enduring coronavirus pandemic has prompted her to want to move to spend more time with her family.
“Being on the school board is one of the most meaningful things that I have done in my life and being on a team with all of you has been very meaningful,” she told her peers on Tuesday, her final meeting. “You’re my colleagues and also my friends.”
The district is seeking applicants to take over Abajian’s at-large post through at least November 2022, when there will be a regularly scheduled election for three of the board’s seats. At that point, the district plans to have a special election for the remaining two years of Abajian’s term; the seat, like the others on the board, will have been assigned to a geographical district.
Board Clerk Zahir Robb remarked that his school board career began “in many ways” with Abajian because of their advocacy work leading up to their elections, and he lauded the perspective she brought to the district and that was informed, in no small part, by her being a Syrian immigrant.
“Our loss is Glendale’s gain. We know that,” said Robb, referring to Abajian’s new home. “Your work and your advocacy for underrepresented communities, making sure the voices of all are heard and really brought into the forefront, is really essential.”
In a similar spirit, board member Patricia Martinez-Miller highlighted Abajian’s commitment to inclusivity and addressing concerns by all, a trait she noticed even in working with her for less than a year. Martinez-Miller was elected alongside Abajian in 2020, returning to the board 20 years after her earlier service.
“I have always marveled at how effectively you ask the question which is on everyone’s minds,” Martinez-Miller said.
A former math teacher at South Pasadena High School, Abajian presently works for the Orange County Department of Education. She previously taught education classes at Occidental College — her alma mater — and math at Loyola Marymount University. In South Pasadena, she has been involved in a variety of nonprofits and in 2018 was recognized by Congresswoman Judy Chu as a woman of the year for her district.
“You’ve made so many important contributions to this city, to our community and to our district and each and every one of our schools,” board member Michele Kipke told Abajian. “I, for one, appreciate just how thoughtful you’ve been in your governance and in your approach to thinking about how we best support our students, our employees, our community and our families.”
When she sought political office, Abajian campaigned on closing the opportunity gap among students and developing a school culture that was more inclusive for students. She touts the district’s expansion of its dual-language immersion program and the implementation of the 9th-grade multicultural literature course into the curriculum as being among key achievements during her tenure.
“From the moment that I first met you, it was very clear that you really put yourself out there to support all students,” board President Ruby Kalra said Tuesday.
After the coronavirus pandemic arrived, Abajian frequently advocated for programming to address students’ mental health and wellness as they engaged in remote instruction for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year and for most of the subsequent year.
“You’ve always led and governed with extraordinary leadership, composure, compassion, trust and confidence,” Superintendent Geoff Yantz said. “All those that an excellent school board member is to exemplify, you do. On a personal side, you’re a wonderful human being and great friend.”