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Nearly 1/4 of State Public School Districts with First-Year Administrators

SUGGESTED LEAD:  The group, “School Administrators of South Dakota,” reports about 25 percent of the state's school superintdents are entering their first year of service this year.

Those positions are often filled with principals, who suddenly find themselves with a much longer job description, and two or more full-time jobs.  That’s a concern to outgoing superintendents leaving that situation—and to those stepping in to the positions. 

Anyone who lives in one of South Dakota’s small towns knows what it’s like to work at several things at once.  In the southeast South Dakota community of Centerville, about a half-hour from Sioux Falls, Doug Voss recently retired as school superintendent—but still keeps his gun shop open.  It’s located between his home and the Royal Bake Shop on Broadway Street, across from the Post Office and grocery store.  Voss is clearly a man who loves his life.

Voss says, “I’ve been a small school person all my life, and there’s nothing better.  We take care of our kids, nobody falls through the cracks in a small school, and it’s just a great place to live and a great place to raise a family.”

Voss spent about a decade and a half as superintendent in Centerville—and nearly 50 years in education.  Chad Conaway, the high school and middle school principal, is now in the top spot in the district, and Voss has been helping Conaway with facets of the job, and as a sounding board.

Voss says, “And he’s concerned about all the things he has to do.  Because he’s not only—well, I was elementary principal, and then I was superintendent and transportation director, and a part-time counselor, and everything else.  And he’s really worried about burnout, and that really happens.”

Conaway—and for that matter, Voss—aren’t alone.  The School Administrators of South Dakota group says about 25 percent of districts in the state are entering the new school year with superintendents who have never done the job before.   Many of the superintendents have retired—a few more have taken jobs in other states.  One of those is Paul Gausman, who left the West Central district nearly seven years ago, to take the superintendent spot in Sioux City, Iowa.  Gausman says while he now runs a district with nearly 13 thousand more students than in the combined Hartford and Humboldt system—the responsibilities and problems are the same for the person at the top.

Gausman reflects, “It can seem unappreciated.  You know, public education is under fire politically, and something that I think is misplaced.  And certainly, something that is politicized in such a way the people use criticisms of agencies and organizations to strengthen their own ability to get elected and that kind of thing, public education to strengthen their own arguments—and it’s very, very hard work.”

Those factors don’t seem to faze Donavan DeBoer.  If you follow high school sports in South Dakota—you’ve heard the name DeBoer at some point.  His father spent several years as a highly successful coach in Chamberlain; Donavan took girls basketball teams from Newell and Rapid City Stevens to State Tournaments.  Now, Donavan DeBoer has moved his family across the state to assume the superintendency in Parker.  It’s his first chance to lead a school system.

According to DeBoer, “I think I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to motivate people—a pretty good understanding of how to inspire people to do their best work.  I think anybody who has an idea of how an operation should be ran kinda wants to throw their hat into the ring and give it a shot.  And I feel like I wanted to take my opportunities to come to a school and see what I could do for our community—and it just fits kinda my needs, I guess.”

Ever the coach, DeBoer is bringing to the job a philosophy he learned from one of the nation’s most successful coaches; the late Don Meyer.

DeBoer says, “He gave me a sign that says, ‘Make the big time where you are.”  And to me, it says ‘don’t try to pass on here—don’t try to move in to the greener grass.  Make the job you’re doing the best job that’s out there.  And I’ve tried to do that throughout my career—make that job the best job that’s out there, and that people want.”

The reasons for superintendents leaving their positions are varied; obviously more money and fewer hats in out-of-state districts; retirement, or another career.  Rob Monson heads the School Administrators of South Dakota.  He says anyone concerned about the superintendent turnover in the state will likely see the numbers rise in the future.

Monson says, “What it tells us is we’re gonna see this turnover, at this level, this year and maybe a little higher next year.  Because if we look at the age of the superintendency get older, we’re going to see the turnover get bigger.”

Monson and his organization have had an informal mentoring program for the past few years; pairing veteran leaders with first-year administrators to answer questions and dispense the now-and-again pep talk.  Monson says the S-A-S-D is making that a point of emphasis in this school year.

“And I’m very grateful," says Monson, "to work with Tom Oster and Rick Melmer with Dakota Educational Consulting; two individuals who have both sat in the seat of Secretary of Education.  We are looking at a formal mentorized program where Dakota Educational Consulting will find mentors; we’ll have a number of face-to-face meetings with these superintendents; on-going phone support; you know, just try to bring in some formalized programming to make sure they’re successful.”

While it seems everyone has an opinion on how public education should work, and most are happy to share that wisdom with a superintendent—the best recommendations come from someone who has been on the front lines of school administration.  Again—former West Central and current Sioux City superintendent, Paul Gausman.

Gausman says,  “When you’re the superintendent of a school district, you’re surrounded by people and feel lonely at the same time.  Because, ultimately, all the final decisions are yours; and ultimately, you must take accountability and responsibility for those.  But there are all kinds of people in the school districts across South Dakota that are—and people in surrounding states, such as Iowa, North Dakota and such; they’re making the same kinds of decisions.  And to lean on each other and make sure you’re thinking through all perspectives is very important.”

Lean on each other, think through all perspectives, and prepare to make the right decision and do the right thing.  In other words, do the things most South Dakotans do every day.