The thank-you messages arrived in school mailboxes last fall, scrawled on stationery and sticky notes. They were sent to more than 1,000 Shakopee school district employees from the new superintendent.

For many, it was the first time the district’s top official had acknowledged their service.

“I see them hanging up on lockers and bulletin boards,” said Doug Schleif, principal of Jackson Elementary in Shakopee. “It makes staff members feel good on a bad day.”

Since taking the reins last year, Superintendent Gary Anger has relied on small gestures to boost morale in an embattled district stung by the scandal involving Rod Thompson, who resigned as superintendent last summer amid accusations of embezzling public funds.

Then, just 10 weeks into the job, Anger faced a new and personal battle — an aggressive cancer diagnosis. It forced him to take a three-month medical leave for treatment and marked another setback for a district scrambling for equilibrium.

Now he’s back at work with new fervor and faced with the same daunting task list: rebuild public trust, close a budget deficit and minimize cuts to school programs.

But his spirits have been buoyed by the thousands of notes he’s received from students, teachers, colleagues and neighbors, all wishing him a speedy recovery. They line a wall in his office and stuff three boxes in his basement.

“I’ve read every single one of them,” Anger said. “When you’re an educator, you don’t realize how many lives you touch.”

In his short time with the district, Anger’s jovial personality and collaborative leadership style have won him the respect of staffers in Shakopee, school board chairman Scott Swanson said.

But the clock is ticking, and parents expect results. The board wants to see how he’ll tackle a full budget cycle before it discusses extending his two-year contract beyond June 2019.

And some of the district’s toughest critics wonder whether one nice man has the moxie to curb spending. “It’ll take some time before anyone trusts information coming out of the finance office,” said community watchdog Gene Grugal. Yet parents are hopeful that an earnest leader is up to the task.

Anger, 53, is aware that he’s being scrutinized.

“I’ve never been part of an organization that had a steeper climb,” he said during last month’s board retreat. “My perception is that the culture here has vastly improved.”

Fourth-grade teacher MaryKate Haake said the difference is palpable, that Anger’s regular presence in the schools — he’s visited her class four times already — has begun the healing process.

“His constant positive support encourages teachers to keep going,” Haake said.

Taking charge

Anger, a native of Bloomington, spent 12 years as principal of Red Pine Elementary School in Eagan before becoming superintendent of the Zumbrota-Mazeppa schools, north of Rochester. He won recognition there for introducing “weather-impacted learning days” to ensure students could complete coursework even when snowed in.

The Shakopee school board hired Anger as interim superintendent in July, following Thompson’s resignation over charges of misspending. That episode triggered a wave of public scrutiny and a petition to oust the board, as the cash-strapped district faced a projected $500,000 deficit and a precariously low fund balance.

Anger came in determined to refocus the community toward the district’s future. “It is time to dust ourselves off and focus on what we can control,” he wrote in an October blog post.

School officials adopted a proactive communications strategy to reach families and promote school initiatives. Anger found a receptive audience on Twitter, where he began posting daily from sporting events, class concerts and budget meetings. He dressed his Shih Tzu/poodle mix, Bella, in a Shakopee Sabers scarf on National Dog Day to encourage school spirit.

To increase transparency, Anger’s cabinet made a concerted effort to open the books. Time was carved out during board meetings to examine granular line items in the district budget.

Anger’s staff also solicited community input on how the district could tighten its belt. They collected more than 200 ideas via e-mail, ranging from shortening school days to freezing the travel budget.

‘The real deal’

While Anger was on medical leave for small cell carcinoma, retired Shakopee superintendent Jon McBroom took his place. They kept in touch as McBroom took cost-saving measures to close an elementary school and redirect its students to area schools next fall. Even during chemotherapy, Anger stayed involved and frequently tweeted about Shakopee initiatives.

He returned to work in late January, two weeks before doctors recommended, and wasted no time getting back to the schools despite his weakened immune system. Kids in one elementary class donned surgical masks and rubber gloves so they wouldn’t infect him, and Anger took care to fist-bump students rather than shake their hands.

Now bald with a soul patch under his lip, he doesn’t shy away from questions about his appearance. “I had hair in the fall, but I lost it,” he recently told a class of kindergartners. “So if you find it let me know.”

Visibility is key to fostering relationships and building trust, teachers and district staffers say. And Anger goes out of his way to be seen. “He’s not hiding in an office somewhere,” Swanson said. “He’s very accessible to everyone.”

To outsiders like Shakopee Mayor Bill Mars, Anger appears to have taken “slow, methodical” steps to turn things around. “I think the worst is over,” he said.

At home, Anger’s wife, Lori, said he works late and is always thinking about how to improve the district. Now empty nesters with two grown daughters, the couple spend their free time bowling in a coed league and seeking out rock concerts.

Lori Anger, a kindergarten teacher in Apple Valley, said that her husband is the most optimistic person she’s ever met, a trait that has helped the family navigate hard times — and now, they hope, the school district as well.

“Everyone gravitates to him because of it,” she said. “He’s the real deal.”

 

liz.sawyer@startribune.com 612-673-4648