A born educator: Tim Lutz reflects on 4 years as Bemidji Area Schools superintendent
Tim Lutz didn’t intend a career in education administration.
BEMIDJI — Tim Lutz didn’t intend to have a career in education administration.
Lutz’s father was a principal for 31 years at Tri-County School in Karlstad, Minn., where Lutz graduated. His mother was also a language arts teacher, though these early exposures to the education field didn’t stick with him at first.
“Initially, I resisted education. I did some other work in the business world having moved out of a small town and exploring a bigger area,” Lutz detailed.
He spent 10 to 12 years working in various business positions but always found himself in one of two dilemmas.
“Every time I found a job, it seemed I either got bored quickly with that work or I gravitated toward the educational piece of it,” Lutz mentioned. “So in a business position, I tended to gravitate toward the area of work that trained people and where I was involved in teaching others how to do what they did.”
Having previously earned his bachelor’s degree in English, Lutz decided to return to school to earn his teaching certificate and complete his student teaching experiences. It was during his 30s that he realized he was a born educator.
“I finally realized that teaching was in my nature,” he said. “After resisting, I came to the realization that education is who I am and what I like to do.”
Finding his niche
Lutz found his first teaching job at Norman County East and stuck with being an English teacher for a few years until the district’s superintendent recommended him for a school counselor position that was opening up.
“They noticed I liked connecting and interacting with students and told me ‘this isn’t just a job for you. You enjoy this,’” Lutz reflected. “I thought for a while and went back to school, and I was working as a counselor for the next four years.”
His attention shifted to administration after pondering who had the ability to change things — specifically related to budgeting, policies and programming — in schools.
Wanting to enter a leadership capacity, he earned his principal certification and worked as a principal for four years. Eventually earning his superintendent’s license, he landed his first superintendent job at Kelliher Public Schools where he worked for 10 years.
Come 2018, members of the search and consulting firm School Exec Connect reached out to Lutz to gauge his interest in working for Bemidji Area Schools following the retirement of Jim Hess. Lutz didn’t initially apply.
“Since I was at a small school, I didn’t consider applying. I thought the experience at a small school might preclude me from being selected for even an interview,” he recalled. “The group working with the school board had heard my name come up a few times, though, and after applying I got a call saying I was one of five applicants given an interview.”
“And the rest is history,” Lutz said.
Having announced his plans of retirement at a January school board meeting, Lutz reflected on his four years at the district that could just as well have been 10 or 20 years.
“The last two years have felt much longer,” Lutz said. “It’s been very challenging with the pandemic and political overtones that have come with it.”
With the latter half of his tenure blighted by the coronavirus pandemic, two failed referendum attempts and tense disagreements with certain community circles, Lutz cited the difficulty of forging trust in a school district the size of Bemidji’s.
“The bigger an entity like a school district is, the more associated we are with the government,” Lutz said.
Referencing the referendum levy increase attempts in November 2020 and 2021, Lutz detailed the difficulty of informing the public about school finance and budgeting procedures, which he described as “extremely complicated.”
“When people don’t understand how school finance works, it’s difficult to build trust when going out to the community to ask for funding. When we go out for a referendum, it becomes a challenge when people don’t understand ‘why we’re not managing our money better’ when the money isn’t there in the first place,” Lutz said. “Then you throw a pandemic at all of that and it becomes a perfect storm.”
Navigating the pandemic was made easier for Lutz, in part, by relying on information and guidance from Sanford Health, Beltrami County Health and the Minnesota Department of Health.
“We had to rely on these experts and we were criticized at times because some people disagreed with a lot of that information,” Lutz said. “But for me, it wasn’t a matter of listening to the loudest voices who weren’t necessarily voices trained in science and medicine.”
He found it his personal responsibility to support his colleagues in the midst of fervent disagreements about the district’s masking mandate along with discussions of virtual versus in-person learning and vaccine choice.
“Navigating that for two years made everything else we were doing and every other challenge we had much more challenging,” Lutz added. “But I showed up every day to support on a personal level, not just professional, the people I was working with.”
When things became hectic, Lutz leaned on his family and colleagues as a support system and also credited his outdoor hobbies and faith for keeping him grounded.
“My wife has been by my side the whole time and is a good sounding board whenever I need to process something,” he said. “I have two grown children out in the community and it’s nice to have them around. I have a great relationship with the people throughout the district, which makes all the difference in the world.”
In his 14 years as a superintendent, he has noted the importance of surrounding oneself with good people to work with and allowing them to grow in their roles.
“Developing leaders includes providing the support they need, removing barriers that get in the way and making sure I’m not a barrier myself — that I’m not getting in the way of their work,” Lutz said. “One person can’t do it all.”
He also emphasized the value of relational leadership.
“Building relationships with students, staff and parents is important in building trust. It helps to move initiatives forward, the relationships keep students in school and relationships with parents help with that.”
Causes for celebration
Along with these lessons, Lutz’s tenure has given him some notable accomplishments he can carry with him through retirement.
At Kelliher, Lutz helped acquire a grant to create a STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics — fabrication lab that provided the district with new equipment to be used by the art and industrial technology departments.
At both Kelliher and Bemidji, Lutz’s main point of pride is the work surrounding the improvement of school safety, culture and climate.
He cited Bemidji Area Schools’ emergency response protocols, specifically the Standard Response Protocol that was implemented this past school year as well as Kelliher’s increased security and use of cameras, door buzzers and locks among other safety measures.
“This work is about making school a place where students feel safer not only physically, but safer emotionally,” Lutz said. “We want every student to feel this is a safe place to be who they want to be. It’s an ongoing project, but it improves attendance, behavior, grades and eventually graduation rates. We’ve made great strides and I’m proud of that.”
He also cited several student accomplishments ranging from athletic to musical to academic, and emphasized the over $3 million of scholarships the class of 2022 received.
“Many of these students are going to college either locally or across the country,” Lutz said. “So many students have excelled and done well in our system.”
Lutz never set a specific goal on when he would retire, but following the pandemic years and hitting retirement age — turning 65 this year — he decided it was time.
“I’m one of many people across the state and country who decided to retire as part of the ‘great retirement’ or ‘great resignation,’” Lutz mentioned. “After a couple of difficult years, it’s time to spend more time on other areas like my hobbies and family.”
While he is retiring from Bemidji Area Schools, he will be filling in as the interim superintendent at Red Lake Schools for the 2022-2023 school year. Lutz referenced a shortage of superintendents across the state that has left many districts scrambling with their openings.
“I wasn’t looking for anything, but something came along that was important enough to do to serve the community,” Lutz said. “Since Red Lake has been a neighbor to Kelliher and Bemidji, I thought it would be my duty to help out somewhere. I’ve found myself to be a person who likes to help out.”
With Crookston Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Olson taking the helm of the Bemidji Area Schools superintendency starting July 1, Lutz has spent some time showing Olson the ins and outs of the district to ensure a seamless transition when he starts.
“I know he will continue to see the importance of a positive school climate and culture in all buildings and keeping school safety and emergency preparedness as the No. 1 priority,” Lutz said about Olson. “He’s very concerned about the budget, as well, and focusing on retaining students and bringing back the students we have lost to charters, private schools and homeschooling. It’s through those student numbers that we’re able to increase our revenue.”
For Olson’s efforts, however, Lutz will be looking on with pride as he transitions away from the district he has called home the past four years.
“I believe this is a district that serves its students and community well,” Lutz left off, “and I’m extremely honored to have been a part of that.”
A retirement party for Lutz will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, June 29, in the district board room.