COLUMBIA - Columbia is excited. People know Jim Ritter. He's almost like a next-door neighbor. He's built a trust level over time.
That's what his wife, Kathy Ritter, and others think of his new appointment as interim superintendent of Columbia Public Schools.
Even though Jim Ritter is working part time, which means no more than 550 hours over the next 10 months, things won't be that different.
Like past superintendents - which Ritter was, between 1998 and 2003 - his duties will include ensuring the school district runs efficiently, addressing community and teacher concerns and working with the Columbia School Board on issues. But he will be less involved in the day-to-day business, said board member Jan Mees.
Each of the six assistant superintendents has expertise in particular subject areas, and Ritter will act as their adviser.
"We will just be empowered," said Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent for student support services. "Dr. Ritter just told us to go about our business, make decisions you have to make."
Interim superintendents can be more than place holders, said Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators.
"Absolutely they can do something," Kurtz said. "Jim is an outstanding administrator. He knows the district, has the track record. I can't think of a better person."
Although he began work Wednesday - full time and for free through Aug. 31 - Ritter's contract officially starts Sept. 1 and runs through June 30, 2009. The board offered him $90,000 for the year, a salary based on half of Chase's final salary including her voluntary $20,000 pay cut. But Ritter accepted $50,000, saying it's more appropriate given the district's financial challenges and because it's closer to what an average teacher earns.
His office hours will be 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. daily.
Working part time is a requirement of his retirement status, Kurtz said. Ritter will continue to receive his pension and benefits as long as he does not work more than 550 hours and does not earn more than 50 percent of what his predecessor, Chase, made. If he exceeds the 550, Ritter's benefits will be suspended, said Al Thompson, general counsel for the Public School and Education Employee Retirement Systems of Missouri.
Another reason Ritter decided to work part time is because he cares for his 94-year-old mother, who lives on her own, Kathy Ritter said. He knew he could not devote himself full time and wanted to be honest about how much time he could devote to the position, she said.
"He takes her to her doctors' appointments and to church," Kathy Ritter said. "Almost every day he's doing something for her."
As interim superintendent, Jim Ritter's main concern is to restore the community's faith in the district.
"The community, our teachers and staff have lost confidence in our leadership team," said Ritter, whose appointment was announced Wednesday morning after it was approved by a 7-0 vote of the Columbia School Board on Tuesday evening. "I need to do whatever's necessary to restore confidence in the district."
In the past year, voters have expressed their dissatisfaction in at least two key ways: by pushing for a new location for the city's next public high school and by roundly rejecting a 54-cent increase to the property tax levy.
Ritter, 70, thinks the best way to win over the community is by immersing himself in it. He plans to accomplish this by speaking with people at every level: parents, teachers, staff, students, community members and others.
"I have worked here 33 years and lived here nearly all my life," he said at a news conference Wednesday morning in the district's Administration Building. "I know a lot of people and know them personally. I have the benefit of being here all these years."
Ritter appeared to have risen quickly to the top of a very short list of candidates to lead the district until a permanent superintendent can be found. A search will begin immediately; board President Michelle Gadbois said she is unsure whether a consulting firm will be used, as has been done in the past.
Phyllis Chase, who became superintendent in 2003, announced on Aug. 5 that she will retire on Aug. 31. However, Chase is using up personal days and is more or less gone from the job.
"Everyone came to the table with a list, and we immediately began reaching out to people," Gadbois said. "We had people who we interviewed who said, ‘If you can get Dr. Ritter, you have the perfect person to lead the district.'"
After the news conference, board member Ines Segert said she appreciates his openness and accessibility. She thinks the community's trust in him will be a huge advantage in the coming year.
"He likes that everyone's calling him ‘Jim,' not Dr. Ritter," she said. "Jim says, ‘Come to the table.' It's symbolic of the change."
Before Ritter was Columbia superintendent, he was an associate superintendent for 16 years. But he began his career in education in 1959 as a history teacher at Hickman High School. During his 12 years there, Ritter also served as a counselor, assistant principal and associate principal. From 1971 to 1975, he was dean of students at Northeast Missouri State University, now called Truman State University, in Kirksville. Ritter then returned to Columbia to earn a doctorate from MU and to serve as director of transportation for the district. He was appointed associate superintendent in 1976.
Ritter retired for the first time in 1991 and went to work for the Missouri School Boards' Association as an associate executive director. In 1998, he returned to the district in a time of turmoil. The district had gone through two superintendents in four years, enduring costly buyouts because neither superintendent had served out his three-year contract. As a result, Ritter agreed to sign one-year contracts, rather than the usual three-year contracts. When he took over as superintendent for Russell Mayo, Ritter came with the lofty goal of giving every child the education he or she needed.
During his five years as superintendent, voters approved all bond issue and levy increase requests. He was also known for reaching out to the people in the district and was credited with restoring its credibility.
Since his retirement in 2003, Ritter ran an unsuccessful campaign for the 24th District seat in the Missouri House of Representatives against incumbent Ed Robb in 2006. The campaign became the most expensive contest for a state House seat in Missouri history, with the candidates and third party organizations pushing the overall cost to nearly half a million dollars.
In June 2003, he was named Outstanding Citizen of the Year by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
Ritter has also served on a number of boards in Columbia, including the YouZeum board of directors, the board for Reality House and the Columbia Public Schools Foundation.
Immediately following Chase's retirement announcement, Ritter's name was brought up on Columbia Web sites and message boards as an experienced superintendent who would be able to step in as a replacement.
"Interims can matter a lot," said Brent Ghan, chief communications officer for the Missouri School Boards' Association. "A school district cannot tread water for a year. An interim superintendent has to be more than a caretaker. He needs to continue to move the district forward."
Mees agrees that having an interim isn't a bad thing.
"It's good we have a point person in the district for teachers and for the board - it wouldn't be effective without him," she said. "Having an interim allows people assigned to jobs to do their jobs without taking time out to direct themselves."
Because Kathy Ritter is principal of Rock Bridge High School, Jim Ritter addressed a potential conflict of interest toward the start of the news conference, saying his wife will report to Assistant Superintendent Wanda Brown. With a nod toward his years at Hickman he said, "Never would I favor one school over the other."
Kathy Ritter said she's not concerned at all about a conflict of interest.
"I've been in the school district for many years," she said. "I've been at Rock Bridge for 16 or 17 years, and Jim has been in the district on and off. I just don't see it being a problem. Anyone who knows Jim, or who knows us, knows it won't be a problem."
She is excited for her husband, but from a principal's point of view, Kathy Ritter hopes the district continues to see the community support it has enjoyed in the past and that the teachers feel well-supported.
Because Jim Ritter has spent so much time in the district, he thinks the learning curve is not as steep for him. But he acknowledged a lot has changed in the past five years.
"I'm going to spend some time relearning about the school district," he said. "There are a lot of good things going on here, but often they become overshadowed by the problems."