Kathryn Leedom


Kathy Leedom had spent six industrious years in Willmar, Minn., as a creative assistant superintendent responsible for classroom initiatives and human resource activities. So when the chance arose in the summer of 2000 to ascend to the district’s superintendency, she eagerly accepted the invitation of the school board.

Barely into her first marking period in her new role—on what she vividly remembers as “the third Friday in September”—Leedom received some jolting news from outside financial auditors: The 4,400-student district was $1.8 million in arrears. Egregious accounting errors over time by the district’s business manager coupled with spending overruns in transportation and an eroded fund balance were fingered for blame, but the fiasco was deposited directly on Leedom’s desk to straighten out. It made for an inauspicious beginning.

“She takes over Aug. 1 and it all fell right into her lap just after her first month,” says Mike Reynolds, who chairs the Willmarschool board.

Leedom, without much background in fiscal affairs during her 25-year career, moved into a decisive solution mode that earned admiration from peers statewide and the confidence of her community. To close the major spending gap in the district’s $32 million general operating fund, the superintendent knew she had to be frank and open with the public about the shared pain they all would endure.

With the state declaring the district in “statutory operating debt,” Leedom acted, with the help of consultants, to adopt new financial planning and enrollment projection models designed to remedy Willmar’s budget-keeping flaws.

Most agonizing was the district’s need to cut 47 professional positions, including two assistant principalships, and 21 support positions. Leedom was forced to eliminate German language courses and all foreign language study and accelerated learning options at the junior high level—programs she had carefully nurtured during her time as assistant superintendent. Class sizes were increased, transportation was reduced and afterschool activity fees were increased sharply.

“For me as a district leader, curtailing these opportunities was certainly a low point. We spend years building services, then to dismantle them was very painful,” she says.

The superintendent took plenty of undeserved heat over the personnel reductions, but she never lost the trust of the community, says David Little, the veteran education reporter for the West Central Tribune. “Some brought up things (at public meetings) to fluster her by personalizing the criticism, but she was unflappable, so cool, appearing friendly even to those you’d consider political enemies.”

Following an unsuccessful levy campaign in February 2001, Leedom and her board went back to the voters with renewed vigor in November, and this time they approved $2.4 million in new operating funds over a 10-year period. In a time of declining enrollment yet increasing diversity (owing to a local turkey-processing plant that employs more than 1,300), the tax levy will serve as the district’s “financial lifeline,” the superintendent says.

Community members have rallied behind her leadership. Walt Gislason, a Willmar businessman who serves on the Wells Fargo Bank board with Leedom, says the superintendent has laid the foundation for the district’s future health. “By the time the second levy came around, she had earned the respect and admiration of many,” he says.

One day last year, a local couple she had not met previously dropped into Leedom’s office to turn over a donation of $40,000 in hopes of preserving the quality of the academic program. The money, offered as an anonymous gift, was used to retain a math teacher, whose position had been targeted for elimination.

“The superintendency can be a very lonely position at times,” Leedom says. “It was very energizing … to see that kind of generosity come forward.”

Later this fall, Leedom will learn whether the state education agency will lift the district’s debt designation of the past two years.

A native of Marshall in Minnesota’s northwestern corner, she spent the first two decades of her career there as a librarian, elementary teacher and assistant superintendent for curriculum and staff development. She moved south in 1994 to Willmar, about two hours west of Minneapolis.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: