By Jenny Neyman
There’s someone Donna Peterson wants to meet.
It’s a person she knew some time ago, before she became Dr. Peterson, was named superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and got too busy to keep up with old acquaintances as well as she would like.
It’s someone who loves to read and travel, goes for long bike rides, has plenty of time to spend with family and friends and, as Peterson recalls, had a bit of a wild streak.
After 10 years at the helm of one of the largest school districts in the state, and the largest employer in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Peterson is stepping down June 30. She announced her resignation Jan. 28 to give the school board plenty of time to select her replacement. It also gives her time to prepare for the next chapter in her life — one where she’s the main character.
“I’m just going to have a break,” she said.
She’s not moving on to another job, much less locations. She’ll stay in Nikiski and do the things that she’s put on the back shelf during her tenure as superintendent.
“You wouldn’t want to give up a lake house now that you have time to enjoy it,” she said.
An item on her agenda is to finally have time to pay back one of her neighbors, Dan Carstens, vice principal at Nikiski Middle-High School, who likes to buzz her house on a jet ski or some other motorized craft, thinking he’s irritating her, she said.
Of course, being superintendent means she’s hardly ever home to hear it, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting retribution.
“I’ll be buzzing his house, except I’ll do it in the middle of the night when he has to work the next day,” she said.
Her first priority, though, will be spending more time with her 94-year-old grandmother, who lives in Nevada. Peterson is her primary caregiver, but can only manage to visit a few days here and there during the school year. She’ll also have more time to spend with her husband, Rudy, and travel to watch the college volleyball games of her daughter, Jamie.
She’ll read, exercise, relax and reconnect with friends.
“I really want a more simple life,” she said.
Does that mean she’ll don an apron, and learn to crochet and bake?
“God, no,” she said.
“I’m not crafty, so that’s not going to happen. I don’t cook, so that’s not going to happen. My circle will grow wider. A lot of it now is work-related. I hope to expand that.”
Not only will stepping down give Peterson time to herself, it also allows the freedom to be herself. When you’re in charge of the largest organization on the peninsula, responsible for more than 2,000 employees and 9,000 school kids, everything you say and do can be subject to scrutiny. You can’t allow a bad day to affect how you interact with others, you sometimes need to keep your personal opinions to yourself for the sake of diplomacy, and you can’t cut loose with friends at a bar over the weekend.
Not that she plans to do that now, she said, but the opportunity to only speak and act for herself, and not the entire school district, is appealing.
It’s also a bit daunting, downshifting from a public position of authority where she’s always informed and involved to being out of the loop.
“Sunday afternoons the phone rings and it’s not usually going to be a good thing,” she said. “I’m not going to be the one on the other end of the phone. That will be really hard to get used to.
“I’ll be exercising a lot, and finding other substitutes for that adrenaline rush that comes from being the leader of a large organization.”
The last time she took a break was over 20 years ago with two babies at home, and that only lasted five months before she wanted to get back to work, she said. So she expects to start working again sooner or later in some venue, writing articles and maybe another book, expanding her professional coaching business and perhaps volunteering locally.
“Anytime you’re involved with the kids, that keeps you young. It’s good for all of us,” she said.
She started out in KPBSD as a parent volunteer in 1990. Her first job here was as a sixth-grade sub for Tim Peterson, who now works out of district office as the human resources director for KPBSD. Maybe now she’ll finally be able to distance herself from the misconception that she and Tim are married, she said.
She taught fourth grade at North Star Elementary School and worked her way up to principal of the school, then curriculum director for the district before being named superintendent in 1999.
It wasn’t a post she expected to have for so long — she’s now the longest continuously serving superintendent in the state — and there was no way to foresee that the decade to come would include so many challenges.
After a boom of population growth and construction money on the peninsula in the 1970s and 1980s, resources dried up in the 1990s and student numbers have been steadily trickling downward, leaving the district having to pink slip employees, cut programs and consolidate schools. At the same time, education regulations were on the rise, with increasingly strict and cumbersome government initiatives, including the big one, No Child Left Behind.
But those challenges led to strengths and the district’s accomplishments that Peterson is most proud of, she said. The district adopted a culture of constant re-evaluation and not only making do with less, but making the most of what it had. That led to the first-rate technology system the district has in place, Peterson said, which is vital to keeping the far-flung district cohesive and in providing expanded opportunities to the district’s rural communities.
Peterson also pointed to the district’s finance department, which is regularly recognized for its excellence — another outgrowth of the lessons learned from stretching resources as far as they would go. And businesses and the larger peninsula community have been integrated into the school district through various partnerships.
“That would not have happened without scarce resources that caused us to look at things and do so many things differently,” Peterson said.
That’s not to say Peterson is glad the district was faced with resource challenges. Sometimes the hard times were just plain hard.
“We lost a lot of good people and we lost a lot of good energy because of scarce resources,” she said.
Another down side of the job has been dealing with controversial issues, she said. Not the contentious issues themselves, like school consolidations, but not always having all the cards on the table was frustrating.
“You might think politics, but I’ve enjoyed the politics because it’s all about education,” she said. “But controversial issues when things come up. I don’t like being surprised, but you’re going to be surprised if you put yourself out there and try new things,” she said.
“You’re always waiting for the ‘gotcha’ in this job.”
Some of the highlights of the district in the last 10 years Peterson pointed to have been the numerous awards and statewide and nationwide recognition district personnel have garnered, the role KPBSD has taken in being ahead of the curve on state and federal education initiatives, and the district’s hiring process for new administrators.
“It involves large groups of people providing input, being involved in the interview process and stating their opinions. It’s been good for the district,” she said.
In the list of accolades accumulated over the past decade, one of the most prominent is the fact that KPBSD made Adequate Yearly Progress, the benchmark of student achievement in No Child Left Behind legislation, as an entire district for the past two years in a row. KPBSD is the only large district in the state to do so.
“That took a long time. In 1999 we started the student achievement focus,” Peterson said. “… We said, ‘Until we get here we can’t talk about much more.”
Now that the district is “there” — with increasing success in student achievement and with state funding reworked last legislative session — Peterson said it’s time to step down and let someone else guide KPBSD to its next destination.
“It’s the perfect time to move on. Administrators are in place, the district is doing well. From the beginning coming in, you see administrative careers as having a lifetime,” Peterson said. “We have a wonderful new school board and we have new blood in there with administrators. I started thinking about, is it time to have somebody else take this to the next level?”
Peterson said she thinks school will change in the future, with school buildings and classrooms looking and operating differently than they have traditionally, and a new focus on kids’ individual learning needs.
“How is that is going to look? Let’s go try some new things. Everything’s in place to be the leaders in individual instruction. But it will take a long time and be a large time commitment and I’m not the person to do that,” she said.
She said she’s not worried about the future of the KPBSD, because folks are prepared to do a great job. But she’ll be hard at work in the next few months to ensure that future, helping the new school board get familiar with the district’s direction, and facilitating the transition for whomever the school board chooses to take her place.
“So the person loves the district as much as I do,” Peterson said.