ST. CLOUD – St. Cloud school district Superintendent Willie Jett will leave the central Minnesota school district at the end of the school year.

Jett told school board members Wednesday he does not plan to seek another contract with the district, citing plans to spend time with his family and pursue other interests.

"Life comes in stages. At this time, it's about time and timing," said Jett, 57. "The decision feels right to step down at the end of this school year."

Jett was selected in February 2013 to lead the district of about 10,000 students, replacing Bruce Watkins, who was first hired as superintendent in 2004 and returned in 2010 after retiring in 2008. Jett was previously an assistant superintendent in the St. Paul school district.

"With Willie, we were looking for some change in the district — some pretty significant change at that point in time and we hired a search firm to go out and find someone who could bring us that change," said Al Dahlgren, who has served on the school board since 2012. "We had been doing things the same for a long time — and the district grew more and more diverse, the poverty rates in the district increased significantly, the [English-learner] population was increasing significantly — and the way we were doing things just wasn't working."

During Jett's tenure, he dealt with a fire that gutted the former Roosevelt school, which housed early childhood services, in 2014. And after a fire at Apollo High School in 2018, Jett helped the school transition to distance learning long before the pandemic required the entire district to do so.

Jett also oversaw a successful referendum to build a new $104.5 million Tech High School, the move of district offices from Apollo to a new building and the construction of a new early childhood center.

Dahlgren said Jett has improved the district by focusing on students' individual progress — whether the student is struggling and needs intervention or is succeeding and needs to be further challenged — by changing the way the district delivers education. Dahlgren also credits Jett for bringing in more teachers, staff and administrators of color, which he said is important because it allows students to see leaders who look like them.

Board chair Shannon Haws said she is thankful the district was able to have Jett as superintendent for as long as it has.

"I don't know what the average district expectancy is for a superintendent but I know you'll see a lot of turnover in other districts, where they are only there for a short time," Haws said. "I'm just so thankful for all the years that he has given us."

Haws said she has been impressed by Jett's ability to form relationships with students and community members.

"You can see that relationship-building wherever he goes if you're in public with him, whether it's in the school building or out in the community," Haws said. "He did that — and role-modeled that — so now we have principals and district leaders that also are building those connections with students and with community partners.

"I'm not in a state of panic because he did so much for the district that we are in good hands," Haws continued. "He has built up a team and has lead us into a new direction. We're going to be OK without him and we can continue with what he has built."

Haws said the board plans to meet Oct. 28 to discuss the search process, and said the board will likely first look for candidates internally.

Jett said he feels blessed to have been part of the St. Cloud community.

"My children will have graduated from St. Cloud area schools and they've had exceptional friends. They've had great coaches. They've had wonderful teachers along the way," he said of son Drake, a student at the University of Minnesota, and Jasmine, a senior at Tech High school. "I just feel so fortunate and thankful to the board, to the students, to the families and to this community for their support. I truly, truly have loved my time here."

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny