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Schmidt accepts new post in Farmington

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Education > Superintendent plans to start his new position early next month

By Mike Cote

Los Alamos Public Schools superintendent Gene Schmidt has a new job, but he won’t have a lot of time to celebrate his acquiring it.
Schmidt, who is stepping down from his position at LAPS, is taking the superintendent’s job at Farmington Public Schools.
Farmington, which is in the Four Corners area, is one of the larger school districts in the state, with roughly 11,000 students and 1,200 staff members in 17 separate schools.
Schmidt, who was stepping away from his position with LAPS following the end of this academic year, applied for the job at Farmington two weeks ago. He said the process was accelerated at Farmington because of the impending retirement of Janel Ryan, the longtime superintendent, who made that announcement in December.
Schmidt said he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“The attraction is more than just a person telling good stories about a school system. It’s about a school system in transition. They’re looking for leadership that would help move them forward in, I’ll call it an ‘excellent journey.’ Right now, Farmington has a number of their schools, by definition, are failing. A number of schools are ‘Ds.’ That is a leadership experience that I’ve had before.”
When Schmidt told Farmington officials he was accepting the position, he was immediately asked how soon he could step into his new position
Schmidt told officials he could start as early as May 5. Kurt Steinhaus, the incoming LAPS superintendent, is scheduled to start on May 4, so the timing, although accelerated, actually ended up working out well.
He said in his new position at Farmington, the school district will be looking hard at professional development for staff, as well as an early college-high school program similar to one being currently implemented at LAPS aimed at students that might not have otherwise considered college as a viable option.
While the two school districts have stark differences — Farmington has a significant blue-collar population from a nearby power plant and oil operations, plus a substantial mix of Native American students and other minorities — there are also some similarities. Notably, there is an interest in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, particularly among those working in the energy industry to design and maintain power generation and delivery systems.
“It takes a little different teaching strategy, in that you have to focus more on basic skills,” Schmidt said. “Kids tend to be emerging readers as opposed to Los Alamos’ proficient or mastery readers. It’s a different frame set as you go into the classroom.”
Schmidt announced he was stepping as superintendent in March 2014, saying at the time he no longer felt he had the support of the school board, which then had Judy Bjarke-McKenzie, David Foster. Kevin Honnell, Matt Williams and Jim Hall as members.
Schmidt said it was Ryan, who suggested to Schmidt he might want to apply for the Farmington job.
“Dr. Ryan has been a good friend of mine for the past six years,” Schmidt said. “When I first came to Los Alamos, she was one of the first superintendents from around the state to call and say ‘welcome.’”
He spent most of last Tuesday in Farmington meeting with the school board and staff and answering questions about what he might do in certain situations, along with writing two essays — the entire process took nearly 12 hours — but he said he found it enjoyable.
“When they called (Thursday night), it was a really joyful moment for Wendy and myself,” he said. “To be invited to become part of the Farmington family, it was really nice. In the background you could here the school board talking, and they seemed very happy…it was a nice thing to hear.”
When Schmidt became Los Alamos Public School’s superintendent, the school district was in a state of transition.
Plans were being made to rebuild all seven of the district’s schools.
During that time, Schmidt oversaw the release of more than $40 million in bonding to aid in the project, funding, that with the public’s approval in ballot initiatives, went toward rebuilding most of Los Alamos High School and all of Aspen Elementary School and Los Alamos Middle School.
In a previous Los Alamos Monitor story, Schmidt said that overseeing the bond initiatives and getting the public to see why they were so important was one of his most important accomplishments.
“Certainly the passage of the bonds and the construction of the schools is something we can look at with pride,” he said, adding that they also “went through a time where the schools increased it’s reputation for a great education through a number of national and state awards.”
In an interview Friday, Schmidt said he was also very proud of the improvements to Sullivan Field and the football field at Los Alamos Middle School, noting that the switch from grass to the artificial surface at both fields was so seamless many visitors who have approached him don’t even realize there were natural surfaces there less than five years ago.
Schmidt not only helped grow and redesign the actual infrastructure of the district, he also helped students and teachers by creating programs that helped foster professional and academic growth.
He also cut down on teacher turnover through a master’s program for teachers paid for by the district, and he cut down on drop out rates through the creation of the Early College program, which gave students other professional pathways than a straight-to-college option, which allows students to stay in school while at the same time learn skills for a trade or non-traditional skill.
Farmington schools issued a statement congratulating Schmidt on his new appointment.
“…we unanimously felt that Dr. Schmidt was the best fit for the needs of our students, as well as staff in our district,” the Farmington school board said in its release. “Dr. Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, are very excited to be joining the Farmington community. In that regard, the board is planning various activities to introduce the Schmidts to our school district, and our community. We hope that when those activities are announced that you are able to attend to give a warm welcome to Dr. Schmidt and his wife.”
-Reporter Tris DeRoma contributed to this story