School has started in St. Cloud with an old hand at the helm.
The St. Cloud school board turned to former Superintendent Bruce Watkins to help during a period of ups and downs and an unexpected departure of the superintendent.
Watkins retired as superintendent two years ago at age 57. He stayed out of the way of his successor Steve Jordahl, but he did keep up with what was happening in the school district through the newspaper.
Jordahl resigned abruptly last spring with one year left on his contract, citing district politics. That's when Watkins reached out to the school board.
"If there's anything I can do to help, let me know," he said.
The school board didn't waste any time taking up Watkins on his offer. They asked him to return as superintendent -- first for one year, then two years.
School board member Les Green said Watkins helped the district out of a jam by returning to his old post. The district faced having to spend a lot of money in search for a new superintendent -- and one with the chops to handle all the issues the district currently faces.
Green said that includes closing the achievement gap and addressing challenges from substantial demographic changes.
"We're looking at 25-or-so percent of students of color," he said. We're looking at a significant influx of students who don't speak English yet, students who have a different culture, students who are trying to figure out the way in a world that's ever changing and very difficult so."
These changing demographics have contributed to racial, religious, and cultural tensions among students. The federal Education Department is reviewing complaints of racial harassment at the school district's high schools. For his part, Watkins said he's ready to address these challenges.
"What we like to feel is that we approach those head on and directly and we do it in the name of creating the best environment for everyone to learn," he said.
Watkins said he will ensure the district maintains a strong and safe learning environment.
Some parents are confident Watkins will bring stability to the district.
Melissa Hanzsek-Brill is among those happy to see him back on board. Her four children -- ages 6 through 14 -- all attend St. Cloud public schools. Hanzsek-Brill says many in the community questioned how the district was spending its money a few years ago when Watkins first stepped in as superintendent.
"And I remember him coming in and making everybody feel a lot more comfortable about how the school district was spending more money," she said. "He got the levy passed through just by being fiscally responsible and working with the board well."
Hanzsek-Brill said Watkins turned the financial situation around and helped the school district earn back the community's trust. She said he worked closely with district parents to establish two language immersion schools: one in Mandarin-Chinese and the other in Spanish.
Watkins showed people how much more the district could do with less money per pupil compared to other surrounding school districts, she said.
Watkins said that's an ongoing challenge as less than 30 percent of households in the St. Cloud area have school-age children.
"For us it means that we've got to take more care to make sure that our public is informed about what's happening in our schools, what our needs are, what our strengths are, what are challenges are, and what type of support we need," he said.
Watkins says he and the school district are striving to keep the community involved.
Hanzsek-Brill's husband, Dan Brill, says now the school board needs a long term plan for leadership.
"There has been a crisis of leadership for quite some time," he said. "I think long-term they really need to think about what is it they want in a lead administrator, what's their vision for the district, and what are they going to do when he says, 'I want to get on with the rest of my life and I really am done, and I mean it this time.'"
School board members say Watkins won't solve all the district's problems, but they expect he will put the district on the path to achieving significant academic strides within two to five years.