COLUMBIA — Chris Belcher will be missed in Kearney.
“I’m happy for Chris; I’m sad for Kearney," said Randy Wepler, principal of Kearney Junior and Senior High schools. "He has done a tremendous job here."
Belcher, 48, is leaving Kearney for Columbia. The Columbia School Board is expected to issue a news release Friday morning announcing his appointment as superintendent.
Belcher told his school board in Kearney the news Thursday evening. He said in an interview he felt comfortable in Columbia and thought that he and the faculty, staff and administrators he met during the selection process were "speaking the same language" and "very compatible."
No matter the district, he said, a lot of the goals are the same — for example, managing budgets and closing academic achievement gaps among students. But it's important to get the community together, decide where to focus efforts and then "set some targets 18 months out, 36 months out," Belcher said.
Belcher said he doesn't plan to come in and tell Columbia what it needs but to come in and listen "because vision only works if it's a common vision." He said his early task is a strategic planning process, including talking about data and prioritizing what the community wants. To accomplish that, he said, the schools must stabilize the budget first and answer the question, "How do we direct resources in the coming years to accomplish the desires of the community?"
Belcher said Jim Ritter, a former Columbia superintendent who has been serving in an interim capacity since August, has agreed to serve in an advisory role after Belcher takes over the job in July.
In Kearney, Belcher coordinated teachers and administrators and found ways to best utilize district employees, Kearney School Board President Brian Thomas said last week. Even though surrounding school districts pay faculty more than in Kearney, under Belcher's leadership, the district retained a dedicated staff, Thomas said.
In his visits to Columbia during the interview process, Belcher mentioned the importance of collaboration in a school district.
“He (said he) would sit down with different people in different positions and ask them to tell him three things they want to change and two things not to touch," said Laura Sandstedt, president of Columbia Public Schools Employee Organization, after Belcher's public reception on Feb. 12.
At that reception, Belcher’s support of a new budget schedule for the Columbia school district met with public support. “He hit it right on the head,” parent advocate Robin Hubbard said at the time. “I've been saying for years I want a five-year budget plan, not a yearly one.”
Steve Calloway, vice president of the Columbia School Board, cited the importance of public input in the decision to hire one candidate over the other.
“To make a decision as important as this after two two-hour interviews is kind of scary,” Calloway said. “We looked at each candidate’s acumen and asked if that met the desires of the public.”
After board members met for about four hours Tuesday evening, they had an idea which of the two finalists would get the nod, Calloway said. “We (didn’t) want to select another superintendent very soon,” he said, speaking generally about the selection process. “We wanted someone who would be with us for a while.”
Phyllis Chase retired in August after serving as superintendent for about five years. Four weeks ago in late January, the board interviewed five candidates, with Deming coming in late as a sixth candidate on Feb. 5.
Earlier this week, Calloway expressed a desire that the board be unanimous in its decision. That did not occur, but Calloway emphasized that the dissent was more to support Deming and not against Belcher. Calloway said he has no doubt the entire board wants Belcher to succeed in overseeing the 30 or so schools and roughly 17,000 students.
“We all feel like we are ready to support the decision that we made,” board member Tom Rose said.
Belcher said the details of his contract haven't been worked out yet. He also said he wants this to be "his last stop" in his career. It's a large district, he said, with specific challenges.
Belcher leaves Kearney after four years as its superintendent.
Although only acquaintances before Belcher joined the Kearney district in 2005, Belcher and Wepler quickly developed a friendship when Wepler’s 18-year-old son died of complications from an irregular heartbeat in 2006. Then, two years later, Wepler's wife died from the same condition.
“He was very good to me and my daughter,” Wepler recalled. “He did all the right things — and not just because he had to but because he had a good heart.”
Belcher, for his part, remembered an outpouring of support for the Weplers from throughout the district, northeast of Kansas City, of about 3,500 students and seven schools. "When you're a superintendent," Belcher said, "you don't work with positions; you work with people."