Out of everything that happened in Joe Petrone’s first year as the Moffat County School District superintendent, it’s a simple streak of red paint on one of his shirts that stands out the most.
The paint was from an accidental swipe by a student at Maybell Elementary School during a visit by the superintendent in May.
“Every time I wear that shirt, I’ll remember that trip to Maybell,” he said. “It’s a special place in our district, for sure.”
As Petrone begins his second year as superintendent, he hopes to have more experiences like those in Maybell, in which he spends time in the classroom with district students, understanding what’s happening at the ground level of education.
The Moffat County School Board hired Petrone in July 2009 to replace Pete Bergmann, who retired.
For Petrone, it’s important to reflect on the past as he moves into the future.
“There are things that I would have liked to have done differently,” he said. “Spending more time in the buildings closer to children and less time in meetings, although we were talking about things we knew we needed to talk about.”
Petrone encountered several challenges in year one, but found, among the obstacles, a strong foundation for student learning and achievement.
“It was rewarding,” he said. “I think that’s the first word that comes to mind.”
Highs and lows
The transition from his former job as assistant superintendent at an international school in Jakarta, Indonesia, was a barrier in itself.
Petrone’s previous position was at a private institution comprising children of more than 60 different nationalities and several languages.
But, he always wanted to come back to the U.S. to be near his grown children, who live in Colorado and Wyoming.
“My expectations were certainly that it would be an adjustment because it was my first superintendence in Colorado and my first superintendence overall,” he said. “And, having been away from U.S. public education, there were a lot of challenges. More challenges than I had anticipated.”
The biggest challenge was one faced by districts across the state.
In an economic recession, the Colorado government slashed kindergarten through 12th grade education funding, and local mineral leases yielded fewer public dollars, cutting district revenue by 6 percent.
The district approved its 2010-11 budget Thursday, which included more than $1 million in cuts from the previous year.
Petrone said his 30 years of experience with children had made it clear that student learning and achievement was dependant on resources.
“I was definitely worried,” he said. “The worry came from an understanding of what consequences reductions bring about to direct services to children.
“We want to provide, maintain and bolster everything we have for kids.”
For more than six months, Petrone and the administration team gathered feedback from parent groups, school administrators and the school board to attempt to spread out the cuts.
“There’s obviously discomfort when you’re asking people to sacrifice,” he said. “But, we talked about shared sacrifice, and I think we got there.
“We have a good team. I was really lucky to have the people that were here when I got here.”
School board member Sandie Johns, who is entering her second term, said the budget might have been the largest challenge of the year, but completing it was also the most significant accomplishment.
“Nobody wants to see anything change or take cuts, but for what we had to do, I think it couldn’t have gone any better,” she said.
Johns said all board members agree they made the right decision in hiring Petrone.
“I think we absolutely picked the right person,” she said. “He’s fit into everything we were looking for so well. He’s had issues to deal with that he didn’t know about when he interviewed, and he dealt with them so well. He’s firm but compassionate, and sometimes that comes from coming in from the outside.”
She said his strength was his connection to children and his passion for putting students first.
“That’s what he’s here for, that’s what he loves,” she said. “No matter what. We are very happy. We hope he sticks around for the next 10 years.”
That interaction with students is what offered bright spots in a year darkened by budget cuts.
He made two trips to Maybell Elementary, one of which was mostly consumed by an outdoor search for a skunk.
He called the Veteran’s Day celebration at Moffat County High School “poignant,” and revelled in the opportunity to engage in budget cut discussions with a group of high school students.
“It was good because I was with really inquisitive students that had been in our system for many years,” he said. “You sort of understand the quality of education when you’re with the product of it.”
Petrone admitted there are some things he wished he had done differently.
But, he said holding himself to high expectations will be the driving force behind his growth as a leader.
“That’s a creative tension, the difference between what is and what should be,” he said. “The ‘what should be’ is being more of a coach and a support to the administrative team.”
He said one of his biggest failings was not spending enough time in classrooms.
He hopes to tag along on field trips, spend more time interacting with students, and possibly even teach an occasional lesson in the upcoming school year.
Interaction on the classroom level will offer a better understanding of teacher and student needs, he said.
Johns said administrators all plan to work on being in the building more and structuring time to meet with one another.
“Communication among everybody is key,” she said. “And Joe is so good at that.”
Petrone will enjoy a brief vacation in July before the school year begins again, when he will have the chance to take what he’s learned and forge ahead into a new year.
“We successfully navigated some serious whitewater,” he said of his first year. “But, here we are in an eddy. We can relax a little in July, but then we get right back in the kayak in August.”