New South Washington County superintendent sets quick pace

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2013 - 5:37 PM

After more than "100 visits in 100 days," Keith Jacobus says he is determined to build trust "one person at a time."

For his first 27 years as an educator, Keith Jacobus worked as a teacher and administrator in Colorado, thinking often of returning to his native Midwest -- and to its lakes in particular.

In 2010, he finally got his chance.

His daughter, by deciding to go to college in Wisconsin, inspired Jacobus to take a position as an assistant superintendent in Osseo. Then last spring he applied for and landed the job of superintendent of the South Washington County School District.

He has settled in by moving quickly. On July 3, Jacobus set forth on a plan to make 100 visits in 100 days. He ended up with 128 meetings in all, then shared what he learned with board members recently before embarking on the new challenge of preparing a 2013-14 budget.

Among his findings: District residents are proud of their schools, and staff members, while open to improvements, "do not want to be anywhere else," he told the board on Jan. 10.

In the next two weeks, the district will hold community meetings that could help shape next year's budget. Ideally, Jacobus said in an interview, people will help him prioritize spending by saying, for example, "This is nice but we may want more here." Cuts in some areas are possible, he added, but it was too early to say where.

"We are not looking at major reductions," he said.

When awarded the job, Jacobus won praise from Board Member Jim Gelbmann for his confidence and charisma.

Last week, Gelbmann said that he appreciated the superintendent's efforts to engage stakeholders and learn more about his new school community. Until Jacobus faces a crisis, "The jury's still out," Gelbmann said, but he quickly added: "From what I've seen so far, he's at least meeting -- if not exceeding -- expectations."

Board Member Laurie Johnson also complimented Jacobus for a willingness to dig deep into the budget to determine which initiatives or programs were working best.

On a personal level, Jacobus, 54, clearly is happy to be in Minnesota. His wife, who doesn't like cold weather, was the one who needed convincing, he said. To show how well things were going -- not just in South Washington County and Osseo, but at home, too -- he retrieved a cellphone with a photo of the view from their residence across the street from White Bear Lake.

"It's been a wonderful move," Jacobus said, adding: "It's great for me to be on water."

Long road back

Jacobus grew up in Greenfield, Wis., just outside Milwaukee, and was a diver on the swim team at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He left school there after two years and moved to Colorado. He graduated from Colorado State University with a bachelor's degree in biology in 1982 and followed it up with a teaching certificate in 1983.

He met his wife while the two were teaching in Aurora, Colo.

Before leaving Colorado, Jacobus also served as a principal and finally as director of schools for the Douglas County School District.

He was in his second year in the Osseo Area Schools when the South Washington County school board decided not to renew Superintendent Mark Porter's contract.

Jacobus said that he did not know the "ins and outs" of that decision, which he likened to a parting between a sports team and its head coach. While acknowledging that such a move can be emotional, Jacobus said his chief concern was, "Can we move forward, and where do we go from here?"

He said he considers his relationship with the board to be a good one. After Board Chairman Ron Kath said he planned to use the "One Hundred Days: One Hundred Visits" report to set goals for the superintendent, Jacobus, who has run marathons, quipped, "I'd like my personal goal to be around fitness."

Looking ahead, the superintendent said that he planned to continue having "neighborhood coffees" with parents at each of the district's schools. He figured he was about halfway through the schools now. He is determined, he said, to build trust, "one person at a time."

People wishing to weigh in on district services and resources can attend one of three upcoming community meetings: Tuesday at Woodbury Middle School, Wednesday at Cottage Grove Middle School and Jan. 28 at Lake Middle School in Woodbury.

The sessions are expected to run from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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