For more than a year, changes have been constant at the Richland 44 school district in northern Richland County, North Dakota.
The 2018-19 education year included an interim superintendent, a new high school principal, a soon-to-retire elementary principal and a district board whose president and longest-serving member was elected only the year before.
Leaders represented a community in the public eye due to allegations of student sexual misconduct, several resignations and a reported communications disconnect. Residents and school officials repeatedly spoke of rebuilding, growth and healing.
Dean Koppelman, hired at Richland 44 in May 2018, recalled challenges leading up to the 2018-19 year. As the year progressed, including his transition from substitute to interim superintendent, he witnessed success and positivity.
“I couldn’t have personally asked for a better school year,” Koppelman said. “The people here — the parents and community members have been so good. The kids are having such fun.”
Gandhi’s dual roles
Koppelman’s one-year contract as interim superintendent expires on Sunday, June 30. Dr. Britney Gandhi, principal at Richland 44 High School in Colfax, North Dakota, will begin serving as both principal and superintendent on Monday, July 1.
“My goal is that both my jobs are done well and I’ll be able to do what’s right for our kids,” Gandhi said. “It’s certainly more to manage and we’ll be working out kinds as we go. I am excited about both of my roles.”
Gandhi received mentorship from Koppelman and plenty of insight. She observed the longtime strengths of both Richland 44 and Richland Elementary in Abercrombie, North Dakota.
“What I’ve seen here is a focus on kids and a commitment to make them the focus,” Gandhi said. “It’s not only about the academics. It’s learning about are they okay in their lives outside of school. It’s about showing that you care.”
Compassion, whether for a student or a staff member, goes a long way for Gandhi.
Three candidates are running in three uncontested races for the Richland 44 School Board. Each candidate is seeking a three-year term on the board.
Todd Johnson, first elected in June 2018, is running to represent Abercrombie Township and a portion of Ibsen Township, North Dakota.
Scott Hendrickson, first elected in August 2018, is running to represent portions of Eagle Township and Walcott Township, North Dakota.
Amy Lee Lehmann, first elected in August 2018, is running to represent Abercrombie, North Dakota.
“Abercrombie Township has always had a good, responsible representative on the school board and I want to continue that,” Johnson said. “I feel I bring a professional demeanor that allows me to deal with issues as they arise and plan for future needs of the district.”
Following the election, Johnson plans to further the Darrel Hendrickson Foundation. Announced in December 2018, the foundation would assist students in attending a secondary education institution.
“I have past experience on various boards and am also a lifelong resident of the district,” Scott Hendrickson said. “I will continue to build programs with high-quality individuals for the long term.”
Asked about the lack of contested school board races, Hendrickson said he believes community members have confidence in the current board.
Lee Lehmann, unavailable for comment, previously spoke about the importance of being a voice for students and families.
“We need to show our students that they are important to us, and that there is a community behind them, working to create the best learning environment that we can provide them with,” she said.
Polls for the school board election will be open from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday, June 11. Polling locations are:
• Colfax Community Center, 262 Broadway St. in Colfax
• Abercrombie Community Center, 101 Main Ave. in Colfax
• Christine Community Center, 201 Maine St. in Christine, North Dakota
“We haven’t finalized our budget for this fiscal year,” Koppelman said. “That closes on June 30 and our new year begins on July 1. It appears at the present time we are looking at a deficit of possibly $100,000.”
Although concerned about what he called a potential deficit, Koppelman said Richland 44’s board will spend cautiously.
“Will we have a deficit next year? Probably,” Berseth said.
Richland 44 is pursuing negotiations and cost-savings to drive down the total, Berseth continued. Gandhi’s dual roles, for example, will bring a savings of $100,000.
According to Berseth, the deficit is caused by revenue loss instead of growing expenditures.
“We’re down 100 students over the last 10-12 years,” he said. “We are on an upward swing now, but our revenue is based on enrollment,” he said.
There’s only so many places to cut. On the other hand, Berseth said the district will be both fair to its teachers and prudent to taxpayers.
Richland Elementary’s gymnasium was filled with students, guests and supporters on Nov. 16, 2018. The packed house came to celebrate Richland being named a National Blue Ribbon School.
“I’ve always known that we were a very good school,” outgoing Principal Cindy Erbes said. “The celebration was a way to show that we were doing a good job and it was important for our teachers, too.”
Retirement is a bittersweet experience for Erbes. It was a pleasure working with Koppelman, Gandhi and her staff. At the same time, Erbes has much confidence in incoming Principal Elicia Hofmann.
“From the moment I met her, I could tell she was going to be a really good fit for Richland Elementary,” a choked-up Erbes said.
Hoffman, who’s spent five years as an instructional coach in Bismarck, said being a principal as been a goal of hers.
“I’m going to get to know our students,” Hofmann said. “It’s very important to have that partnership, to meet the needs of every child. It’s not just looking at their education. It’s looking at the whole child, their well-being.”
What kind of a year has it been?
He couldn’t have asked for a better group of people than the Richland 44 School Board, Koppelman said.
“We were willing to learn and we were willing to listen,” he said. “Most importantly, we were looking out for the best interest of our kids.”
Leaders have a common goal, Berseth said. It’s what’s best for Richland 44.
“We had a tremendous year,” he added.
Richland 44’s next board meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday, June 17 at Richland 44 High School, 101 Main St. in Colfax.