FARGO - Graduation weekend has been a big part of Jeff Schatz's life for 24 years.
That string ends Sunday, June 3, after he speaks at ceremonies for North, South and Davies high schools.
The Fargo Public Schools superintendent is moving on - looking for a "capstone" career - after more than three decades in K-12 education. He already plans to work with some area non-profit groups, he said.
"I feel good about leaving. I made that choice in November; just decided that it's time for me to take some time off, reflect a little bit," he said.
Other superintendents have called the post "the craziest job they ever had," the 58-year-old said.
It's also one of the most rewarding, he said.
"These are big jobs.The Fargo Public Schools is the fourth-largest employer (in Fargo), that runs a $155 million budget. That's a CEO of a corporation. Of a major corporation. It takes your complete attention and energy to do something like that," Schatz said.
The job "never leaves you. You are the job. You become the job. You can't turn it off," he said.
Focusing on the positives makes it manageable.
"A whole lot could go wrong every day, but a whole lot goes right. And really, some of the issues and things that we deal with on a daily basis - when we compare it with the enormity of a large district like this" - are often small in the grand scheme.
Schatz is a Fargo native, who graduated from North High School and received an education degree from North Dakota State University. He earned master's and doctorate degrees from the University of North Dakota.
He's been with the school district for nine years: three years were spent shepherding the construction of Davies High School and opening it as principal. The last six years he has been superintendent.
Schatz taught physical education starting in 1983 at Sargent Central in Forman, N.D. From 1985 to 1988, he was director of training and volunteers for Special Olympics in Grand Forks. From 1988-1992, he taught physical education at a Grand Forks junior high school, from 1992-1994 he was the Grand Forks athletic director, and he then moved on to being the associate principal and later principal for Grand Forks Central High School.
Schatz is proud of how Davies High School turned out. As superintendent, he helped create a long-range facilities plan that led to building Ed Clapp and Eagles elementary schools. Kindergarten through grade three literacy has improved, there are social workers in the middle and high schools for at-risk students, and Fargo students take more than a third of the advanced placement classes in the state.
He emphasizes that those accomplishments are a team effort.
"If you lead with the mentality that you want to take credit for everything, you're going to fail," he said.
Schatz said other issues must still be addressed: teacher safety, how to handle students with serious behavioral issue, and southside enrollment growth.
Those will be issues for his successor, Rupak Gandhi, an assistant superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo., Schatz said.
Schatz also worries that the insights of education professionals are too easily dismissed and that public debate has become more coarse.
"If you're a public employee, you kind of take it on the chin sometimes. ... and eventually, over a career, that kind of wears you down," Schatz said. "You get to a point in a career where you say you're a little tired and battle weary, and if you were to ask me that, some of that is true."
Integrity and foresight
Schatz has left school board members impressed.
Related content"The one word that comes to mind when I think about Jeff is 'integrity'," Jim Johnson said. "I think in all of his actions, whether it's interfacing with the public, the board, his staff, he is truly a person of high integrity."
Johnson, who has served multiple terms as board president, said Schatz also put students first in his decision making.
"I think he's leaving the district in very, very good shape," Johnson said.
Linda Boyd was president of the board for two years, which included two votes asking voters to approve a mill levy.
The first vote failed. When the school board sought a second vote, Schatz "absolutely took that on as a personal challenge" and spoke to scores of local groups, she said.
Boyd said Schatz's organizational and planning skills are a "superpower" that made the district a better place.
Related content"He's one of the most extraordinary leaders I've ever known," she said.
Schatz was still writing his commencement speech on Wednesday, May 30.
He says he wants to emphasize three life lessons:
"The first one is, 'One thing is for sure, nothing (is for sure),' " he said.
"Just when you think you have it all figured out, something will happen, and you have to go back to the table and re-figure it out."
Second, perfection is, if not overrated, elusive.
"I've been looking for perfect my entire career and I haven't found it. I have said to people, 'If you find perfect, bring it to me. I want to see what it looks like,'" he said.
And you go with the best outcomes you can get.
"In the end, it is what it is," Schatz said. "Difficult decisions are sometimes met with approval and sometimes disapproval. You sometimes have to reshift and rethink and try to come up with what will work."
Schatz said he's had a good ride.
Things haven't always work out perfectly, "but overall, the initiatives, the focus, I don't really have any regrets," he said. "I'm not going to walk away with any regrets. I've had too much success in my career to start lamenting what you could of, should of, or would have done."