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Starting in Faith and Committed to Caring

by Jay P. Goldman

Anyone who meets his mate in a place called Faith and ascribes to veteran football coach Lou Holtz’s homespun philosophy must have the makings of an educator who knows a lot about personal relationships.

The school community in Custer, S.D., knows it has a shining star in Tim Creal, its superintendent of the last five years, who has clearly built his leadership base on his demonstrated sense of caring. A set of valuable nationwide connections hasn’t hurt either.

A native of the state’s Black Hills, Creal has raised the ambitions of the 976-student Custer system through a personable style that plays well in the rural Great Plains.

Parker Knox, who covers the local schools for the weekly Custer County Chronicle, says the superintendent’s leadership skills are transparent to all. “At board meetings, he has a way of including in his remarks that ‘this program doesn’t work without the excellent faculty we have.’ I don’t know how many times I’ve heard him say that,” Knox says. “He has a way of sharing credit.”

Creal says his many in-service presentations over the years can be captured in a single word: caring. “I believe students don’t care how much you know ‘til they know how much you care,” he says. “I believe what Lou Holtz preaches. (There are) three things to ask when you are in conflict with someone: Do they care? Are they committed? Do you trust them? If the answer to any of the three is no, you have pinpointed the problem.”

He’s been an adherent of this approach ever since hearing Holtz, who has coached football at Notre Dame and in the professional ranks, address the 1998 AASA national conference. He calls it “the best 20 minutes of my life. ... I still have the videotape of that speech, and I showed it here my first year and to new staff each year.”

One of the primary lessons he draws from the coach’s philosophy is an understanding of his own role as the chief executive of his small community’s most important enterprise. “Increasingly, my job is making sure that everyone in the system has what they need to do their job,” Creal says. “If that doesn’t happen, I fail. If the high school principal says to me, ‘We need someone to help with reading,’ I need to come through.”

Creal’s also a skilled salesperson when it comes to promoting a worthy concept. After years of inactivity on a desperate need in Custer, he was able to mount broad support among the public and his seven school board members to rally behind his proposal for a long-overdue high school building. The new facility opened last fall, and notably Creal was able to use capital outlay funds — without relying on public bonds or local tax increases — to finance the $7.25 million project.

“How can you argue about moving forward with something so positive?” the superintendent says.

A past president of the South Dakota School Superintendents Association, Creal periodically is asked to lend his expertise to groups in other communities. His presentation topics tend to address superintendent/board relationships, 360-degree evaluation for professional staff, and, most frequently, the merits of the four-day school week.

Jon Dahlstrom, an investment professional who has served for three years on the Custer school board, believes Creal’s involvement on several national bodies has amplified his effectiveness on financial matters. Creal is in his second term on the AASA Governing Board and in his fifth year on a federally appointed committee that oversees the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which provides payments to schools and counties affected by national forests within their borders.

Creal was named to the latter body in 2001 by then-U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle as one of two superintendents on the seven-member committee.

“If you only travel in South Dakota, you only expect certain things,” says Dahlstrom. “But if you travel through the U.S., you can gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of what’s possible. If you listen to Tim speak, you can hear and feel his passion for kids.”

At times, Creal says he’s amazed to find himself in such a sweeping leadership role since he considered himself quite content to be teaching high school math and coaching football and basketball during the first 13 years of his career, which started in the tiny school system of Faith, S.D. “I guess you can consider me a jack of all trades and a master of none,” he quips.

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


BIO STATS: TIM CREAL

Currently: superintendent, Custer, S.D.

Previously: superintendent/principal/special education director, New Underwood, S.D.

Age: 52

Greatest influence on career: While teaching high school math in New Underwood, two board members asked whether I could be the superintendent. At that time I was not certified and did not even have a master’s degree. That spurred my thoughts in the direction of administration.

Best professional day: I have great satisfaction in building a new high school in Custer. That first day of school last fall was a very memorable moment.

Books at bedside:The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman and 1776 by David McCullough

Biggest blooper: We allowed an article to appear in our district’s newsletter that included negative political comments about local legislators by a couple of our school board members.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: Because of their advocacy for public education and public school superintendents.