Tough Road Ahead For The Interim St. Joseph School Superintendent

Jun 5, 2015

Dr. Robert Newhart is the new interim superintendent in the St. Joseph School District. He was introduced to the community Friday evening.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR

There’s probably no tougher job in education in Missouri right now than leading the scandal plagued St. Joseph School District.

So the board of education has called on a hometown hero of sorts.

Dr. Robert Newhart started his career in St. Joe, his mother is a legendary high school government teacher there and Newhart is a hall of fame football player from Missouri Western University in St. Joseph.

Even though Newhart only has a one year contract and the title of "interim superintendent" the board expects him to start cleaning up the mess.

"There's no doubt that there's some high expectations that go along with that," Newhart said after being introduced to the community Friday evening. "This isn't going to be easy. It's going to be a process and we've got to hit the ground running."

When Newhart hits the ground July 1, he'll inherit a district being investigated by the FBI and a federal grand jury. He'll take over a school system that has lost the confidence of most of its teachers and tax payers. He'll preside over a district that will start the new fiscal year with a $14 million deficit.

Newhart says needs to get out and start listening.

“There’s no doubt the first thing we have to re-establish is trust with the staff, students, the public, parents and community. And that’s not going to be an easy task. It's not going to happen overnight,” he says.

This is by far Newhart's biggest job. He's leaving the tiny Princeton, Missouri school district about an hour from St. Joseph. Before Princeton he was in Lexington, Missouri and Polo, Missouri. He's never lead a district with more than 800 students.

St. Joseph is the state's 16th biggest district with 11,000 students.

School board member Kappy Hodges says the board was concerned about Newhart's lack of big district experience. However, she says, it's clear to her that Newhart has the leadership skills St. Joseph desperately needs right now. "For me, I needed someone to come in here, hold some people accountable, make some changes and he's someone who can do that."

Board members who interviewed Newhart describe him as direct and open. The opposite, some say, of former superintendent Fred Czerwonka who was fired after just two years on the job following a scathing state audit.

The audit uncovered no-bid contracts, rampant nepotism and numerous violations of the Missouri Sunshine Act.

Hodges says she thinks the new superintendent will meet these problems head on. 

"I think he sees the real problems we have out there and he wants to root out anything that might be left, tidy it up and move on," she says. "Which is exactly what we need to do. You can't pretend it just didn't happen."

The school board is expected to approve Newhart's $174,500 contract Monday.

 

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