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School Board interviews Hess as superintendent finalist

James Hess, a finalist for Grand Forks superintendent, greets Cindy Thiel before his interview with the Grand Forks School Board, as Katie Dachtler and Eric Lunn look on. Hess is superintendent of Bemidji Area Public Schools. Thiel, a member of Grand Forks Air Force Base School Board, was representing that board's president, Elizabeth Meihaus, who was unable to attend the special meeting Tuesday. (Photo by Pamela Knudson/Grand Forks Herald)

James Hess said he and other education leaders in Bemidji "learned an important lesson" a few years ago when a $13 million bond issue aimed at building a new K-5 elementary school to alleviate crowding was voted down by a three to one margin.

The measure failed, he said, because "it did not address crowding in all schools; it just addressed crowding in one or two schools."

Hess is the second superintendent finalist to be interviewed by the School Board. The interview and meetings with various stakeholder groups took place Tuesday.

He spoke about a later bond issue, which called for a new school for 900 fourth- and fifth-graders, that did pass. "It was a $31 million solution," he said.

Voters also approved another $10 million for operation of the school, he said.

The experience confirmed the need "to take time and make sure people have been listened to and heard," he said, "and to get people on board and make sure (the proposed solution) is really the one that they want."

That "intermediary" Gene Dillon Elementary School, scheduled to open this fall in Bemidji, will free up space for kindergarten through third-grade students in the other primary schools, he said.

"The public liked the idea of reconfiguring schools," he said.

In response to a question from Amber Flynn about an ex-assistant principal at a Bemidji middle school who was recently convicted of using social media to direct students to send him sexually explicit photos and engage in sexually explicit conversations, Hess said, "He was as normal as anyone you've ever seen. He basically created a false life."

"No one—not me, not the principal, not the police resource officer with whom he had lunch every day—none of us had any idea of the dark secrets that were in this young man's heart," he said.

As soon as he was informed of the investigation by a sheriff, Hess said, he took immediate action to suspend him.

"The story got deeper and darker with every page," he said. "We were absolutely horrified."

In an interview that covered a wide range of topics, Hess mentioned examples of success stories in the Bemidji school district, including the development of the Bemidji Career Academies which provides students with education and training in fields such as business, health care, aerospace technology, the construction trades and information technology.

"I hoped for 40 to 50 students in the first year," he said. "We had 242 students sign up."

The program is supported in large part by the Neilson Foundation, he said.

Hess, 66, also emphasized the need for a superintendent "to be a very public figure," he said. "I work with the economic development group, the chamber, the university and civic leaders."

He has more than 37 years of educational administration experience, including serving as a principal, executive director and superintendent. Early in his career, he also taught elementary school in Aberdeen, S.D.

Hess announced in August his plans to retire June 30 as Bemidji's superintendent, a job he's held about 15 years.

"I'm child-centered," he told those gathered for a public forum earlier Tuesday. "I'm a visionary, an experienced leader, and I'm excited about the possibilities I see here."

In remarks to the board, he said he is looking to extend his career in Grand Forks.

"Some people get old; some people get tired. I am neither of those," he said. "I have a huge passion for learning."

The Minnesota Association of School Administrators selected Hess to receive its Polaris Leadership Award in 2016.

Another finalist for Grand Forks superintendent, Dennis Goodwin, superintendent of Camp Verde Unified Public Schools in Camp Verde, Ariz., was interviewed by the School Board on Monday.

Terry Brenner, director of curriculum, instruction, assessment and professional development, will be interviewed by the School Board beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

The public may attend a forum and ask questions of Brenner from 5 to 6 p.m. that day at the Mark Sanford Education Center, 2400 47th Ave. S.

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