COLUMBIA - Shortly before 1 p.m. Tuesday, Phyllis Chase walked confidently to the center of the Columbia School District's main conference room on West Worley Street and faced Columbia's news media.
"Recently, I was notified by the Public Schools Retirement System that my years of service, coupled with my age, meet the requirements for full-time retirement," Chase began, reading briskly from a letter she had prepared. "After weighing several options, I have decided to retire from the Columbia Public Schools effective Aug. 31, 2008."
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Chase, whose successes have to some extent been overshadowed by public criticism over locating the next public high school and deficit spending, will release the reins of the district she has held for five years.
"It's never a good thing to lose a superintendent," said Steve Calloway, vice president of the Columbia School Board. "She always tried to do what was best for the kids."
Calloway added that Chase, 58, has worked hard and deserves her retirement.
Ines Segert, a new board member, who in her campaign criticized how the district has been run, said she was somewhat surprised by Chase's announcement, "but I think it is the right thing for the district at this time, and I think we need to move forward."
Segert was among the board members who did not know for certain about Chase's decision until a closed board meeting at noon Tuesday.
"I am saddened by her announcement, but I understand her perspective," said Karla DeSpain, a board member who, until April, served as its president.
"I wish Dr. Chase well in her retirement. It is well deserved," said board member Jan Mees. "Her impact will last years to come."
The board will meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday to discuss hiring an interim superintendent who would lead the district from Sept. 1 through the 2008-09 school year. A search for a permanent successor will begin in January. It is the job of the school board to search for and hire a superintendent for the district.
Jim Ritter, who Chase succeeded as schools superintendent in 2003, said he thinks the district will want to wait until next spring to hire so that there is more time for quality applications to be submitted.
"This gives them the time to describe the characteristics they want in the next superintendent," he said.
Within hours of Chase's announcement, Ritter's name was tossed around on an online newspaper forum as a sound choice for an interim superintendent. He said that as of late Tuesday afternoon, he had not been approached by the district nor had he considered it himself.
"The board will be making a decision," Ritter said, "and I would guess they are going to be looking at internal personnel to fill the interim position."
The Columbia district has 29 schools, with two more in phases of construction. Enrollment for 2007-08 was about 17,000. Chase came to Columbia from Springfield Public Schools, where she was chief of staff, in the absence of a superintendent.
Rosie Tippin, who was elected to the school board in April, said she thinks the board will have to work hard to find a replacement for Chase. But, she said, "I think we'll find someone who will be a good fit for our district."
Still, Tippin has mixed feelings about Chase's announcement.
"It comes at a difficult time," she said. "She's trying to do what she feels is best for the district."
John McCormick, who was a vocal critic of Chase and the district after it approved the first site, known as the Vemer property, for a new public high school, said he thinks it is time for new leaders.
"We need a new philosophy of the sharing of information while having an open discussion of pros and cons of major decisions," McCormick said. "The new superintendent needs to have an openness and be willing to discuss things with the public. There is a long way to go to re-establish trust."
Janet Swope, a fourth-grade teacher at Midway Heights Elementary School, said Chase has brought a lot of positive ideas and growth to the district. She said she was shocked by the news.
"I feel like maybe she is taking the blame for a whole lot of issues that could have possibly been out of her hands," Swope said.
Swope, who has one child still in the public schools, said she isn't concerned about the district not having a superintendent for the beginning of the school year.
"We have lots of experienced assistant and associate superintendents that can easily step up and steer this district if needed," she said. "We have been in this position before."
The Web site for the Public School Retirement System of Missouri states that one of the ways employees with a Missouri teaching certificate are eligible to retire is through "early retirement: age-reduced." Under this, one must be at least 55 and have worked in the schools for five years or be any age with 25 years of schools' experience.
At the news conference, Chase said she has no immediate plans for retirement. Chase confirmed that her house is up for sale, but when asked if she was leaving town, Chase said no and said she was building another house. Chase said she will have more time to spend with her friends and family, which includes three grown children. David, her husband of almost 35 years, died in 2005 of cancer.
"I'm going to take some golf clubs that I have in the garage," Chase said, "and take them out for a good workout."
With obvious pleasure, Chase told the gathering she will miss the people she works with, the district's teachers and its students.
Is Chase ruling out the possibility of coming back to education?
Missourian reporters Elise Catchings, Evan Hamilton, Deidra Holder and Kristin Lewis contributed to this article.