116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — “Rock star” and “leader among leaders” Cedar Rapids schools’ Superintendent Noreen Bush, who was diagnosed with cancer more than two years ago, died Sunday. She was 51.
Bush was “a model for doing what’s right for kids and never apologizing for it,” said friend and mentor Trent Grundmeyer, associate professor in Drake University’s Educational Leadership Program, who made the rock star analogy.
He met Bush about a decade ago when she was studying to get her superintendent license at Drake, he said. They stayed in touch.
“She was a leader among leaders,” Grundmeyer said. “Her personality was so bubbly that people wanted to be around her and follow her style. That was evident way back when.”
After Bush started as the Cedar Rapids Community School District superintendent in 2019, Grundmeyer said he walked with her through some of the district’s schools to help with recruiting efforts for a high school principal. He remembers that she knew every staff member and called every child by name, Grundmeyer said. She was “so proud” to show off what was happening in the schools, he said.
Cedar Rapids school board member Jen Neumann said Bush was a “small woman with the largest shoes ever” and it will be hard to fill her role atop Iowa’s second largest school district, with about 16,000 students.
“She believed in everything she did with her whole heart,” Neumann said. “It helped others, inspired others, and threw out sparks that will be burning fires for years.”
The school board earlier planned to meet Monday to appoint an interim superintendent. Bush went on medical leave in September after a two-and-a-half year battle with cancer. The board last month accepted her resignation effective June 30.
The board last week selected an Illinois-based consulting firm — Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates — to lead the search in identifying the next superintendent as early as January.
Before being named superintendent, Bush also was deputy and associate superintendent of the district under former Superintendent Brad Buck.
Buck graduated from Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids a couple years before Bush. He took her to her senior prom as a friend when he was a student at the University of Northern Iowa.
“If you’re not having fun when you’re with Noreen, it’s probably you and not Noreen,” Buck said. “She has contagious laughter.”
When their paths eventually crossed professionally and Bush was interviewed for the position of Cedar Rapids schools’ superintendent, Buck said her interview was “perfect.”
“She was one of those rare people who was a visionary and can also execute the vision,” Buck said. “Her passion was for keeping students at the center of the work and that every child had the opportunity to succeed.”
Bush graduated from the UNI with a bachelor’s degree in English education. She earned her master’s in educational leadership administration and superintendent’s certification from Drake. Bush began her career in education as an English and drama and forensics teacher in Clayton, Mo. Before coming to Cedar Rapids schools,’ Bush worked as a principal in the College Community School District.
Bush was named 2021-22 Iowa Superintendent of the Year by the School Administrators of Iowa. She was nominated by her peers and selected for the award by a committee of other Iowa superintendents.
At the time of her death, Bush also was chair of the Urban Education Network of Iowa, a coalition of Iowa’s largest school districts. Margaret Buckton, executive director of the Urban Education Network, said Bush brought “eternal optimism,” a commitment to putting students first and expertise to her role as chair.
Bush brought “sunshine” and fun to every meeting and conversation, Buckton said. “That element of fun improved the experience for everybody, and I’ve learned that from her and tried to bring that in to everything I do.”
In an email Sunday, Cedar Rapids school board President David Tominsky said Bush lead the district with “compassion for every learner and strength in making important decisions.”
Tominsky said Bush died peacefully.
We will miss her caring soul, delightful spirit and strong dedication” to the district, he said. “She was admirably known for her leadership and hard work, along with her caring smile and laughter that flowed to all who were blessed to know her.”
Grief support services are being made available to all school staff, Tominsky said.
Principal Megan Elsinger at Lincoln Elementary in the Dubuque Community School District was mentored by Bush when she was a student at Drake University.
“I am honored to have the opportunity to learn from her and grateful for the lasting impact she continues to have on my practice as an administrator and educator,” Elsinger said. “Noreen is truly an inspiration and one of the most positive and generous people I have had the privilege to know.”
Ryals Parker, special services director for Cedar Rapids schools, also was mentored by Bush as he earned his superintendency license. Parker said Bush was a “great friend” who supported him through personal challenges, including the death of his father and the birth of his first child.
“She has been an amazing resource to me as an educational administrator,” Parker said. “Her leadership in Cedar Rapids convinced me that I wanted to be part of such a great team.”
Bush lead the district through monthslong closure and eventually online learning forced by the COVID-19 pandemic shortly after she began as superintendent.
And then the derecho hit Aug. 10, 2020, damaging every school in the district just before classes were to start. Bush led Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds through the hardest-hit high school — Kennedy High — where students continued to learn remotely until Jan. 19, 2021, when repairs were completed.
Under her leadership, the school board worked for more than a year to revise a contract for school resource officers — police — in the district’s middle and high schools. The school board in August finalized a contract with the city of Cedar Rapids to remove the officers from district middle schools, which the city opposed but accepted. The move is expected to reduce the disparity in charges between white and Black students, a process started by student advocates.
Bush lead the district in planning to ask voters, possibly next year, to approve a $312 million general obligation bond to pay for renovations, additions and improvements at middle schools and four high schools over the next seven to 10 years. The bonds also would pay for a new 1,200-student middle school, reducing the number of middle schools in the district from six to four, and for a new aquatic center.
A facility master plan also is underway that updates the district’s elementary schools.
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