Former Duluth Schools Superintendent Keith Dixon has taken over the helm at Centennial schools, albeit temporarily.

Dixon was named interim superintendent, replacing Paul Stremick, who left after two years to return to his native North Dakota. According to district spokeswoman Cathy Wyland, Stremick quit to become superintendent of a small district in the northeastern part of the state, close to family and home.

Dixon's three-year contract in Duluth expired June 30, and he started July 1 as Centennial's superintendent. Dixon said that, until he was contacted by the Centennial school board about the interim job, he had planned to retire and move to the Twin Cities, where his wife's job as president and CEO of the Minnesota Alliance with Youth in St. Paul was becoming more time-consuming.

"It got to where she had to spend more and more time down here," said the 64-year-old Dixon. "So I decided I'd retire and support her career for a year or two, and be open to all the possibilities here in the Twin Cities."

Dixon's one-year contract with the Centennial schools allows the board to renew it, but also stipulates that he will not be a candidate for the permanent job. He said he believes that's because the board wants someone who will remain in the job longer.

"They want to get focused on a longer-term replacement," Dixon said. "What I would say is all of us recognize that we would love to see a leader stay five to seven years to make some substantial investment in the community and be able to move the district forward."

Dixon will make the same salary as Stremick: $159,843. Unlike Stremick, he has no severance package. The district has to pay Stremick $127,942 in severance, and accrued and unused sick days and vacation days.

School board Chairwoman Christina Wilson said it didn't make sense to offer a severance plan to an interim superintendent. She said she didn't think Stremick's severance package was a problem for the board at the time he was hired, but that "I think going forward, that's going to be part of the equation, looking at those kinds of packages as a way to control costs."

Board members will begin looking in earnest for a permanent superintendent in October, Wyland said.

Dixon said his first priority is meeting people and "getting a sense of the district." Then, comes the challenge of making sure everything's ready for the first day of school.

At some point, Dixon and the board will have to figure out whether they want a tax referendum in November. At least Dixon doesn't have to worry too much about prospective budget cuts for the time being: $2.4 million in reductions have already been made for the 2011-12 school year.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547