Chesterton Tribune

 
 

Duneland Schools chief Dirk Baer to retire

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

“All good things must come to an end,” is how Dr. Dirk Baer began to break the news that this school year will be his last as Superintendent of Duneland Schools.

Near the end of Tuesday night’s school board meeting, Baer fought tears as he announced his retirement saying he is honored to call Duneland home and to serve in its schools for 26 years, which he called the “finest in the state.”

Baer recalled how he was hired to be principal of Chesterton High School around the same time he earned his Doctorate of Education from Ball State University in 1987. Baer served as CHS principal for six years and moved into the superintendent’s office in 1992 when then-superintendent Dr. Kenneth Payne asked him to be assistant superintendent of operations.

While he loved being principal and the people he worked with, Baer said it was his role as assistant superintendent that made him realize he really enjoyed the business side of education, working closely with Duneland Business Manager Bonnie Gaston.

Baer was hired by the Duneland School Board as Superintendent at the start of the 2002-2003 school year, taking over for H. Stephen Hewlett.

After hardly enough time to get his feet wet, Baer faced the crisis of dealing with the after effects of the Bethlehem Steel bankruptcy when the plant was removed from the assessed valuation formula. That meant huge shortfalls for the Duneland budget and cuts to programs and staff seemed inevitable.

But Baer said he has able to work with his teachers, administration and school board “trying to make it float, borrowing money from everywhere we could” and in the end the schools “made it through without cutting anything major and nobody lost their job.”

The next major benchmark of Baer’s leadership came about five year later when legislators in Indiana ruled that schools in the state could no longer rely on property tax revenues to supply their General Funds. Days grew grim as further reductions meant painful cuts to school aide programs and student activities.

Early last year, Baer asked the school board to approve a referendum to raise property taxes in Duneland by 22-cents per $100 in assessed valuation to shore up looming shortfalls in the school budgets. On Tuesday, Baer thanked the community once again for voting yes on the referendum, although he said he had hoped the margin would be wider.

Throughout the difficulties, Baer said he has had the “privilege of working with a very talented group of people” who care for kids in the community.

“It’s the people-piece that comes back. I think we made it because of the people and we never lost sight of that main goal,” Baer said.

Baer told the Tribune that he expects more changes in education to come from the state legislature in the near future. Plenty have occurred during his tenure and have “worn (him) down some,” partly why he has been considering retirement for a few months now, adding that being a superintendent has been “a difficult job.”

Another factor playing into his decision, he said, is his desire to “do something else” in the arena of education, but he hasn’t decided what new job he will pursue. He did say that he will remain a resident of the Duneland community and will be around to advise the administration and the school board.

“I am going to help where I can,” he told the board.

Baer will finish the school year and assist the board in finding his successor. His last day will be June 30.

He said this year’s upcoming commencement will also be a special one for him because he will be handing a CHS diploma to a nephew of his.

Lastly, Baer thanked the community for trusting the school corporation with their most precious commodities – their kids. “They are our blueberries,” Baer said with a tear and a laugh.

A boss and a friend

Choking on a few tears of their own, board members called Baer their friend and shared accolades for his service.

New board president Mike Trout said to Baer, “You have done a great job and you will be missed. We appreciate what you have done. You’ve led us through some tough times. You’ve been a friend and a great superintendent for the schools.”

Board member Ralph Ayres said he is grateful to have worked under Baer as a teacher when he was principal at CHS. Their relationship grew when Ayres became a state representative and he remembers once specifically “pleading in the governor’s office for a loan.”

Ayres said the Duneland community will be forever grateful to Baer and told him, “You’ve always been a true professional – someone who you can trust.”

Returning to the school board this year, member John Marshall said he has known Baer for a long time and it was Baer’s heartfelt service that has added to the quality of life in Duneland. “We’re losing a good man and a good friend.”

Retired board member Janice Custer said she wishes Baer luck, knowing for a while of his plans to retire. “He’s been a good friend and I’ve enjoyed all my time working with him.”

Let the search begin

Trout told a weepy-eyed audience that the board will begin to search for the new superintendent as soon as possible. Because of the two new members who joined the board, no formal discussions have taken place on qualifications they will seek or what changes they would like to see with the new leadership.

The board will first meet in the next few days with Dr. Michael T. Adamson, director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association, to get some direction.

After that, the board will determine the scope of the search and whether they will consider candidates from inside or outside the Duneland School Corporation.

“We’re not going to exclude anyone. We’re going to keep our options open,” Trout told the Tribune. “But we are going to be looking for someone who has the heart and the financial background that Dr. Baer has. That’s the kind of person we want to hire.”

Trout said the board has not discussed if the superintendent’s salary will be raised but does want it to be competitive. The current annual superintendent salary for Duneland is $128,000 which Trout believes is smaller compared to that of the Valparaiso and Portage school districts.

 

 

Posted 1/9/2013