I went over to West Junior High School on Tuesday evening to meet and greet our next school superintendent, Charles Eugene Deming.
Yes, I know there's another "finalist," but if I were Chris Belcher I wouldn't be saying my goodbyes in Kearney just yet. Why would board members go around their highly paid search firm to entice the local guy out of retirement if they don't intend to hire him?
I could be wrong, of course. I often am. It seems pretty clear to me, though, that this job is Skip Deming's to lose. In spite of a few stumbles and a studied vagueness that irritated a handful among the meeters and greeters, he didn't lose it Tuesday.
As I chatted with him briefly, admired his natty double-breasted suit and Arizona suntan, and listened carefully for some substance in his responses to questions, I was struck by the resemblance between Skip, who'll be 63 in June, and his mentor, retiring (again) superintendent Jim Ritter.
Both have made their careers in the Columbia schools, with short stints of university service. Both cover their passion for education, and for our schools in particular, with a laid-back, laconic demeanor. Both seem to enjoy the respect and affection of nearly everyone they've worked with. Both see communication with staff and community as being Job One for a superintendent.
Both have mastered the jargon of education and art of dodging difficult questions.
One questioner, for example, wanted to know Skip's take on the math curriculum that has become a contentious issue for angry parents and at least one board member. He responded that he favors an "eclectic" approach to the teaching of math and, indeed, all subjects. The "artistry of teaching" lies, he said, in determining which approach is best suited to each pupil.
His guiding principle, he said, is "what is best for the children of the Columbia Public Schools." If what is best for any child is a move to a private school, that's OK, too. He emphasized, however, "I'm a public school person."
Several questioners wanted to know how he'd grapple with the budget shortfall that faces the district. He demonstrated that his highly polished oxfords were made for dancing as he pleaded his ignorance of any specifics of problems or solutions. The issues facing the next superintendent are "tougher than ever," he said. His process of confronting them would be based on what he described as his favorite saying: "Plan the work and work the plan."
When an obviously dissatisfied listener demanded to know whether he'd produce a 15-page business plan for the system, he quietly responded that he'll have a plan, though he wouldn't promise 15 pages. He did promise, repeatedly, something the board found lacking with Superintendent Phyllis Chase. That's communication, which he prefers to do in person but through "appropriate channels," with teachers and parents.
Outgoing board president Michelle Gadbois said in introducing Skip that she and her colleagues are seeking a "fabulous superintendent." I doubt that's how he would describe himself. In fact, given the opportunity to explain how he's superior to Chris Belcher, he lavished praise on the other contender.
The session was held in a school cafeteria. On one wall were posters exhorting the Vikings of West Junior High to be "Respectful," "Responsible" and "Ready." My guess is that Skip would be comfortable claiming those virtues.
I'll be surprised if they don't get him the job.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.