In a unanimous vote Monday night, the Natrona County school board promoted human resources executive director Mike Jennings to superintendent, effective July 1.
The current chief executive of the Natrona County School District, Steve Hopkins, will retire at the end of this fiscal year, which concludes June 30. Hopkins has been superintendent since 2013, when he was promoted from associate superintendent of business services. Jennings will serve as “superintendent elect” until he assumes full responsibilities next year.
Jennings has been in the district for 26 years this month, according to his LinkedIn profile. Before becoming an administrator at the district-level several years ago, Jennings was the principal of Centennial Junior High. He’s a graduate of the University of Wyoming and Chadron State, where he earned his master’s in science education in the mid 1990s. With Monday’s vote, Jennings is set to take over as superintendent of the second-largest school district in the state, and, as a result, he will be one of the most prominent educators in Wyoming.
Ahead of the vote Monday night, board member Dave Applegate praised Jennings and said the board’s decision to nominate him for the job shows that the trustees “believe the district is on the right trajectory.”
Fellow board member Clark Jensen called Jennings “honest, dependable and friendly.” He said the district won’t “miss a beat” during the transition.
After the board’s vote, Jennings said he was excited and humbled.
Board chairwoman Rita Walsh said the decision was made “several months ago” to keep the search for Hopkins’ replacement internal to begin with. That matches how Hopkins was hired. District spokeswoman Tanya Southerland added that the search was kept private to respect Hopkins’ autonomy to announce his retirement when he was ready.
Walsh declined to comment on how many finalists the board interviewed, but she said trustees approached various district employees to invite them to apply. She declined to discuss the process further, and Southerland said the district would be releasing more information after the start of the school year next week.
In his comments before the vote, board member Kevin Christopherson said the board “had two great interviews with two outstanding candidates.” Fellow trustee Angela Coleman said it was a “tough call” because of the “great candidates.”
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Hopkins leaves — and Jennings will take over — a district in transition. The recent economic downturn trimmed the district. Beginning in 2016, a small group of administrators — including Jennings — studied and would over a period of a year recommend to the board that five schools be closed here, as a result of dwindling enrollment.
On top of that, many buildings in the district are new or have undergone significant reconstruction in recent years. Perhaps the two most well-known of those buildings — Kelly Walsh and Natrona County High — both underwent sizable remodels that concluded last summer.
There’s also been a wave of new leaders in Natrona County schools of late. New principals have taken the reins at several schools over the past year, and Hopkins’ retirement is the latest departure among high-level administrators. Before him were Rick Skatula and Dennis Bay, both executive directors who had spent decades in Casper’s school system.
There’s new emphasis on bullying, transparency and graduation rates, all newly implemented over the past year. Roosevelt is beginning this school year with a renewed focus on its at-risk population, while KW and NC are both implementing their own graduation plans to nudge along Natrona County’s graduation rate. The district has also gained a reputation for acting quickly to curtail the worst potentials of financial crisis, as evident in the decision to shutter the five schools.
Jennings will be no stranger to any of this work. He was involved in the bullying and safety revamps, along with the task force that recommended the schools be closed. He has been a constant presence at legislative meetings going back more than a year, as lawmakers’ discussions there often played a significant role in the future of school funding.
His promotion also represents the second straight superintendent hiring here that was done behind closed doors. Hopkins’ retirement has been somewhat of an open secret for months now, though it wasn’t publicly announced and school officials had declined to comment up to the day before the retirement was finally confirmed in a press release.