Over 33 years, he's taken the state's largest school district from mainframes to iPads, and set it on a course for the future.
When Patrick Plant was a boy, his Grandma Agnes Plant told him he would be either a preacher or a teacher.
As the Anoka-Hennepin School District's chief technology and information officer, he thinks he's been a little bit of both. Now, he'll be giving up those unofficial roles as he retires from his official job after nearly 34 years with the district.
In 1979, when Plant arrived, computers were mostly nonexistent in schools. Most were "dumb terminals," keyboards and monitors linked to a huge mainframe that did their thinking for them, and still were limited in their applications.
Today, the district is preparing to implement a $3 million-a-year, 10-year levy approved by taxpayers in 2011. The new technology will include much-more-sophisticated devices that think just fine on their own, but in a parallel to the old mainframe days, they do much of their remembering in the cloud.
Plant's boss and close friend, Superintendent Dennis Carlson, uses words like "vision," "bold" and "brilliant" to describe the man who made moves like recommending the district adopt Mac computers in many applications when the rest of the educational world seemed to be going with the business-style PCs.
"That's the kind of person he's been," Carlson said. "He set out a vision for the district, and he's been right on all the things he's done."
Plant came to the district's community education department all those years ago with a teaching certificate, degrees in history and language and a deep interest in collaboration. Tracking technological changes in the school district is a study of all three, he said.
"I fell in love with the concept of lifelong learning, and a tenet of that is everyone learns, everyone teaches," he said. "I always taught myself that technology is really a language and cultural education. ... How technology has played out to change the culture, be it business or social culture, the history major in me is fascinated by the cultural change."
A parent and community group at Mississippi Elementary School, where he was supervising community education, purchased the district's first Apple II computer.
"They had the faith before the district itself had a clear vision of how technology might fit into it," he said.
Over the years, Plant's part-time work to improve systems and efficiency with technology evolved to full-time. In 1993, he was asked to move beyond community education into the larger district. He said he views his job as looking at organization and resource management first, and technology second.
Meanwhile, technology increasingly was being integrated into the daily operations of schools, for data management, as a supplemental teaching tool, for student research and assessment, for communication with parents.
Plant worked beyond the district's borders, taking a leadership role in national and international organizations that studied the next trends for technology in education. A highlight, came in 1998, when a panel debate involving both Plant and Steve Jobs turned into a nearly hourlong private conversation with the late Apple co-founder and CEO.
Funding always has been a challenge in the fiscally conservative district. Voters approved a technology bond in 1994 and narrowly rejected them in 2000 and 2007. In some ways, that expected frugality created innovation, he said, and an expectation that the district wouldn't ask for anything that wasn't necessary and proven.
The district got by on grants for several years, but by 2011, "we were at the cliff," Plant recalled. Computers were aging. Infrastructure was not set up to move forward.
But voters passed a $30 million levy, creating a modest stable funding source for technology in Anoka-Hennepin schools for the first time.
Plant's last day is Friday, but he expects he'll be back, to volunteer in music and technology in Anoka-Hennepin. He hopes to also apply his skills more broadly to work with kids and communities, but he's taking his time deciding on his next move. He and Carlson are both hoping to give more time to their band, PC2.
"I'm not going to make any promises to anyone until I have some thoughtful time to plan over the next couple months," he said. "What gives me comfort and relaxation about it is, I'm not worried about it."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409