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‘Servant leader’: Cedar Rapids interim Superintendent Art Sathoff to help grieving district
Sathoff leading district in continuing secondary facility master plan, which could include a bond referendum next year
CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids interim Superintendent Art Sathoff — a “teacher and coach at heart” — is prepared to support a grieving district and help lead a school facility master plan that would require the public to approve a bond referendum.
Sathoff, 56, who retired as superintendent July 1 from the Indianola Community School District, was approved as interim superintendent of the Cedar Rapids Community School District last month in a 6-1 vote after the death of Noreen Bush.
Bush, 51, died Oct. 23. She was diagnosed with cancer more than two years ago. After she went on family medical leave in September, school board approved her resignation, effective June 30, setting in motion a superintendent search process.
The board last month selected an Illinois firm — Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates — to identify candidates to become the next superintendent of the state’s second largest school district, possibly as early as January.
Sathoff said he is “flattered and humbled” to be appointed interim superintendent of the Cedar Rapids schools. He will be on-site two to three days a week, either staying in a hotel or commuting from Indianola. On the other days, he will be working remotely.
Sathoff’s contract — including his salary — was expected to be approved Monday evening by the Cedar Rapids school board.
“There’s a lot that’s unique about this situation,” Sathoff said. “I was not interested in making the district wait until we could formally approve something.”
It will “definitely be a challenge” going from superintendent of Indianola schools, which has a student body of 3,600, to Cedar Rapids schools, which serves 16,000 students, Sathoff said.
Like he has in previous roles, Sathoff plans to make it a priority to visit principals, teachers and students in their schools. “The highlight of any superintendent’s day is if he or she can get out in the classroom and see the kids and teachers,” he said.
Facilities master plan
The district is planning to ask voters, possibly next year, to approve a $312 million general obligation bond issue to pay for renovations, additions and improvements at the 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 — while reducing the number of middle schools in the district from six to four — and for a new aquatic center.
Sathoff said he has been learning about the facilities plan from Cedar Rapids schools building director of operations Jon Galbraith. “We’re really concerned about equity of opportunity for our students,” Sathoff said. “The learning environment has about as big an impact on student achievement as anything.”
The school board is considering bringing the bond referendum to a vote as early as March, although “a lot would have to come together to make that happen,” Sathoff said.
Another option is to take the bond referendum to a vote in September. Sathoff said he doesn’t want the district to lose momentum by delaying the vote, but also wants to make sure the public has all the information it needs to make a decision.
As superintendent in Indianola, Sathoff oversaw plans for a $70 million bond referendum, which passed after he retired in September by 86 percent approval. He said a few of the factors that contributed to the success of Indianola school’s bond was a clear plan and opportunities for community input. “The need was apparent,” he said.
In a school board meeting last month, school board President David Tominsky touted Indianola’s bond, saying Sathoff has “successfully worked with communities to get a bond vote to pass. That type of experience I think is hard to come by.”
34 years as educator
Sathoff was named Superintendent of the Indianola school district in 2014, and previously was superintendent of the Fairfield Community School District and an English teacher, coach and principal of the middle school and high school in the Pekin Community School District.
Sathoff also has served as president of the Iowa Basketball Coaches Association and member of the Iowa High School Music Association Executive Board.
Spencer High School Principal Kurt Schwarck, president of the Iowa High School Music Association, said Sathoff was integral in helping districts better understand copyright compliance during his time on the board. The board worked to make sure music directors across the state understood what was required of them to be in compliance and what tools are available to help them secure the permissions they need, he said.
Sathoff also helped get schools’ music programs through the worst of the pandemic.
“He’s always a voice of reason,” Schwarck said. “We always look to Art. Every decision that man makes is well thought out from all angles.”
Tony Alysworth, superintendent of the Pleasantville Community School District and on the Iowa High School Music Association Executive Board with Sathoff, said Sathoff was a wise “mentor” to superintendents in southeast Iowa.
“More so than anything else I’ve learned from Art, is the way to support and treat people who are at odds with you,” Alysworth said. “He treats people with dignity and respect even if they don’t treat you that way.”
Joel Pedersen, superintendent at the Cardinal Community School District and vice president of the Iowa High School Music Association, first met Sathoff almost 20 years ago when he was a teacher and basketball coach in Pekin.
Sathoff is a “servant leader” who cares deeply about people not just as employees. “He will do a great job of trying to help the (Cedar Rapids) district heal,” Pedersen said.
Sathoff also was a part-time associate pastor at Indianola Church of Christ in his retirement before accepting the Cedar Rapids schools’ interim superintendent position.
Kirk Evans, pastor at Indianola Church of Christ, said one of Sathoff’s priorities as associate pastor was leading a new initiative called “Life at Home.” Life at Home is a program to equip church members be the “primary disciplers” of their children by providing them with resources to be the “teacher that God has ordained them to be.”
Evans said the church sent Sathoff “off with blessings,” when he had the opportunity to step in as interim superintendent in Cedar Rapids.
“Here’s an opportunity for him to serve a grieving, hurting community,” Evans said.
Sathoff said his faith informs how he leads as does anyone’s personal beliefs and values. “To me, it’s trying to have a servant leader mentality, to love my fellow people and treat them respectfully,” he said.
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