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On the Road With High-Test in His Tank

by JAY P. GOLDMAN

Tom Ames has never been one to shy away from operating in overdrive. For the last 28 years as the superintendent in St. Charles, Minn., he’s willingly worn a lot of additional hats as the school district’s technology director, gifted and talented coordinator, and technology teacher at the elementary school — all simultaneously.

Ames says the sundry roles haven’t posed a significant obstacle to fulfilling his main responsibilities, insisting everyone in the 985-student district goes the extra mile.

Thomas AmesTom Ames



“When I take on something … I’ve rolled up my sleeves and mastered it,” says the native of southwestern Minnesota, whose extended tenure in St. Charles gave him distinction as the state’s longest-serving superintendent in the same venue. He spent two years previously as superintendent in Wykoff, Minn., an appointment he accepted at 29 years old.

This summer Ames followed through on a public promise he made at a staff function in 2007 to retire from the St. Charles post three years hence. Yet, unready to leave the school leadership field, he’s signed on for the next three years as the half-time superintendent in two small, rural school districts, Truman and Parkers Prairie — located 206 miles apart from one another in a swath of central Minnesota.

While he is functioning as a road warrior, Ames also will be a live experiment in long-distance leadership in which he is strapped with the latest technology tools. In advance of his start date, he purchased a Droid smartphone and loaded the Google applications for cloud computing, enabling him to manage the affairs of either district whether he’s in the other location or somewhere in-between (safely parked off the road, he swears).

The software enables Ames to keep an updated personal schedule on a public website, accessible to folks in both communities.

Like rural communities elsewhere, Truman, with 300 students, and Parkers Prairie, with 550, have lost population and grown increasingly older over the years. Ames says this doesn’t mean those communities no longer deserve to maintain their own public schools. “I’m fighting to be able to deliver for kids,” he says. “I’m part of the effort … to provide a quality education, in spite of the recession and the declining enrollment.”

In St. Charles, the superintendent’s willingness to be the on-call computer problem solver (a function he assumed back in the early ’80s when the district owned five Apple IIe computers) and to provide two hours a day of technology lessons to 4th through 6th graders has had a stunning fiscal impact. Despite one of Minnesota’s lowest per-pupil funding rates, St. Charles is the lone school district in the state’s southeast quadrant never to put up for public vote a levy override referendum.

Ames’ personal sacrifices and do-more-with-less guiding formula allowed the district to channel funds instead into better-than-expected compensation for a rural teaching force (at one point, the third-highest starting salary statewide). The money normally targeted for secretaries, paraprofessionals and other noninstructional positions allows St. Charles to underwrite an annual June trip for 9th graders to visit Washington, D.C., for six days of learning. The district picks up all but $175 of the $900 cost per student.

His fiscal management handiwork has many admirers. “Tom will shop on eBay and purchase computers for $300 that I know one neighboring district is purchasing through their source for $1,500,” says Keith Persons, the school board treasurer.

Another fan, Brian Grenell, superintendent in Madelia, Minn., offered an eerily apropos forecast back in February for the long-distance challenge Ames would land two months later. In his letter of recommendation, Grenell wrote: “Tom’s energy level is somewhat scary. His gas tank is never empty. … Most of us tend to slow down with age. I just do not think Tom knows how old he is.”

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

BIO STATS: TOM AMES

Currently: dual superintendent, Truman, Minn., and Parkers Prairie, Minn.

Previously: superintendent, St. Charles, Minn.

Age: 60

Greatest influence on career: Eddie Albertson, my high school math teacher and the athletic director in Springfield, Minn. He always said our academic education took priority over extracurricular activities. Our character and conduct spoke louder than our accomplishments on the field. On more than one occasion, he pointed out those athletic letters on our jackets and sweaters wouldn’t be of much value in the future. He’d say, “Some of you who think those letters are so valuable, why don’t you take your letters and go down to Tauer’s Super Value to see how many groceries they will give you for them.”

Best professional day: Almost any day that I can be in the classroom.

Books at bedside: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande and Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham

Biggest blooper: While speaking to a group of elementary students, I referred to “flip-flops” as “thongs.” Their laughter totally confused me. Finally, a teacher assistant pointed out to me this term no longer applies to what we wear on our feet.

Why I’m an AASA member: To succeed in any profession, you need the support and wisdom of your colleagues.