S. Routt official leaves his mark

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When Steve Jones leaves his job as superintendent of the South Routt School District next week, he'll be leaving behind a much-changed school system.

There are new and improved facilities for each of the three schools, current technology districtwide and a new focus on student achievement.

But when he recounts the improve--ments that have happened during his six years as superintendent, he doesn't take all of the credit -- or even most of the credit. He praises the School Board, administrative team, teachers, community and students for making positive changes happen.

"I think I am leaving behind a good district," Jones, 60, said. "I think it is, in some respects, a much better district than when I came -- although I don't think that's necessarily due to anything on my part."

His colleagues, however, turn the praise back to him.

"Steve has been really good for the district," School Board president Hank deGanahl said. "He's done a lot of positive things ... (and has) been a lot of fun to work with."

"He has brought so much quality to our district," district business manager Dina Murray said, adding that Jones' decades of experience in education "has been something that this district has really benefited from in a lot of different ways.

"We're going to miss him a lot around here."

Greg Binsfeld, a longtime math teacher at Soroco High School who retired this year, said Jones is leaving the district in better shape than when he came.

"I really had the feeling that he cared about people," Binsfeld said. "And he definitely cared about kids."

When Jones interviewed for the job in 1999, he toured the district's facilities.

"They took me around ... and I said, 'Unless you're willing to do something about these facilities, you don't want to hire me, because I want to do something about these facilities,'" Jones said.

He was hired.

Soon after, Jones, along with the South Routt School Board, district staff and the community, began the process of getting a bond issue passed for the $9.5 million renovations. The bond issue passed with 60 percent voter approval.

With that money, the high school and middle school were renovated inside and out. Classrooms, a gymnasium, state-of-the-art facilities for the vocational agriculture program and a commons area were added. The elementary school was expanded and improved.

"Our facilities were pretty sad when I came," Jones said. "Now, they're quite nice."

To Jones, the improved facilities are not the biggest improvement that took place during his tenure as superintendent.

Neither is the School Dist--rict's technology, though it has evolved from a system with no voicemail and paper-and-pencil records to one in which computers are connected and parents can access students' assignments and grades online.

The biggest improvement, he said, is the district's new focus on the achievement of all students. The district is holding itself more accountable than five years ago, he said. Graduation requirements, for example, are much more rigorous.

Along with that, safety and discipline have improved greatly -- there are fewer suspensions and discipline cases than before, Jones said. Teachers are in the hallways making sure that discipline problems are prevented before they happen.

Jones has been with the South Routt School District for about six years, but his story begins long before this job.

He grew up in the Denver area and attended Western State College in Gunnison. He taught for a few years in Akron, and then taught special education in California schools for years.

He returned to Colorado as a special education administrator and, in 1980, became the director of the Mountain Board of Cooperative Educational Ser--vices, a position he held for 19 years.

In 1999, he started looking at superintendent jobs. He had worked with hundreds of superintendents and had ideas of how to do the job well.

"I really wanted to do that, and I'm just so glad that I did, because it's really been a wonderful job," Jones said.

He had three interviews but stopped after talking with the South Routt School Board -- he was glad to find a board willing to focus on student achievement.

He has enjoyed the job in part because of the "wonderful support" the School Board has given him. The trust among staff, the School Board and administrators is strong, he said.

Jones' philosophy is one of openness. Whether working on budgets, salary schedules or goals, he said he tries "to always give the same message and to try to sort of open the books up."

It's easier to be transparent, he said, so no one is left guessing and concerns can't build to crisis level.

He has faced some challenges at the school district, most notably declining enrollment and the accompanying declines in revenue. When he came in 1999, district enrollment was about 460 students. Now, it is fewer than 400. He attributes the decline to the high cost of living, but he said he hopes it's temporary.

The decline in enrollment means budgets have to stay lean. The district doesn't have any "fat," or room to add, so if a program or position is added, something else has to be taken away, he said.

Although the district has had to make cuts it didn't want to make, and had to turn down things it would like to add, the process hasn't "changed the process of who we are," Jones said.

Jones was planning to retire this year. He and his wife wanted to be closer to their children and enjoy retirement.

But an offer from the Uni--versity of Colorado at Denver to be director of continuing professional education, a new position, was one that Jones could not pass up.

Through the position, he'll help teachers in the metro area get additional training. The job fits well with his firm belief that one way to increase student achievement is to train teachers better.

Jones, who has 39 years of experience in education, is receiving the Colbert Cushing Award this year. The statewide award is given annually by the Colorado Association of Superintendents and Senior Administrators to one superintendent or senior administrator.

Jones said he has been grateful for the respect that the South Routt community gives the superintendent.

He has enjoyed watching students -- students learning, students enjoying school, students interacting with teachers -- and has enjoyed watching teachers teach. He also has enjoyed working with the School Board.

"Every day," he said, "I wake up, and I look forward to going to work."

-- To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail scunningham@steamboatpilot.com

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