COLUMBIA — On Thursday, Columbia residents will have an opportunity to meet Chris Belcher, the second of two finalists being considered by the Columbia School Board for superintendent of Columbia Public Schools. The other candidate, Skip Deming, had a public reception and final interview with board members on Tuesday.
Belcher, 48, has been the superintendent of the Kearney R-1 School District in Kearney, northeast of Kansas City, for three years. In that time, he has gotten involved in the community, established an open line of communication and made hard decisions, according to civic leaders there.
Superintendent candidate Chris Belcher will be available for questions from the public at 5 p.m. Thursday at Paxton-Keeley Elementary School, 201 Park de Ville Drive.
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Belcher's door is always open, said Brian Thomas, president of the Kearney School Board.
"Sometimes people won't like what he has to say, but he's always upfront and honest,” Thomas said. "You can talk to board members all you want, but if you have questions about education, he's the one that knows."
Randy Wepler, principal of Kearney junior and senior high schools, recalled a difficult decision Belcher faced as superintendent. An elementary school in Holt, a small community in Belcher’s district, was in major disrepair, and someone needed to decide whether the school was going to be replaced, repaired or closed.
"It was a very trying time," said Kathie Ousley, a school board member and Holt resident.
According to Wepler, Belcher was the only one willing to face the issue, and he recommended to close the school. It was the right decision for the district, Wepler said.
"The children responded better than the parents," Ousley said. "The transition was handled wonderfully."
Kearney Mayor Bill Dane agreed. Even though this was an emotional and unpopular decision, Dane said, Belcher held many meetings and tried to answer the concerns of the public.
Belcher tries to keep the community involved through consistent communication.
“He is active in almost every group in town: the Teachers Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Rotary (Club),” Thomas said.
Joanna Williams, former president of the Kearney Chamber of Commerce, said Belcher came to the district and organized things. He had a plan and he hit the ground running, meeting with teachers and community leaders to implement his plans as soon as possible.
Williams said Belcher likes to convene focus groups, to "get a view of what needs to happen for the district from parents and business owners."
Thomas said Belcher has far exceeded the school board's expectations. "From where we started to where we are now, the progress is unbelievable, phenomenal."