That’s what won Stan Rentz the job as Payson Unified School District superintendent starting on June 30.
The school board on Monday approved a two-year, $115,000 annual contract for the former Georgia schools superintendent.
Rentz, who recently retired from a long career in Georgia, ran a 3,300-student, working class, K-12 district, with 65 percent of the families qualifying as low income.
In Payson, about 50 percent of families qualify as low income, which remains the single biggest factor in determining school achievement.
Rentz will take over from Superintendent Greg Wyman on June 30. Wyman is moving back to the Valley to lead another district for family reasons.
During appearances during the hiring process, Rentz stressed building morale. “I want everyone to know ‘you matter.’ But I have zero tolerance for negativity.”
He said he had a gift for making people feel like they mattered.
“Our students need to feel that too — it all comes down to relationships.”
Rentz didn’t attend the board meeting Monday, but is expected to return to Payson Friday.
Wyman’s tenure was marked by rising morale, a quiet, almost placid school board, a gradual end to years of deep budget cuts and increasingly harmonious relationships with staff and the community. However, the district continued to suffer from low funding, deferred investments and declining test scores and graduation rates at the high school.
Board members this week said they picked Rentz for his demonstrated experience, personality and ability to build morale and mentor teachers. They noted he brought Jefferson Davis County Schools from ranking as a C district to a B district. Payson already ranks as a B district on state assessments, even though the high school has slipped to a C.
Rentz spent 25 years in the Jefferson Davis district, serving as a teacher, principal and administrator. However, after raising his children and weathering a divorce, he resolved to fulfill a lifelong dream to live in the Southwest. He grew up on a farm in rural Georgia and said he wanted to continue living in a small, rural town like Payson.
“The main thing is his ability to lead, his strong personality and his experience,” said school board member Shane Keith. “He’s been able to increase student achievement and create a strong culture. Those are the two things he brings from his past experience.”
Board member Jolyn Schinstock said, “He’s a people person. He’s very good at building relationships. He’s hands-on and plans to be in the schools, visiting students, teachers and administrators.”
Board member Joanne Conlin agreed. “He’s very well rounded. He’s got the big picture and understands the great variety of things a superintendent does.”
Board President Barbara Underwood said, “I think that coming from a school district of that size — with his leadership — I think he’ll transition nicely to a small community with the same needs. He understands relationships with the community, how it’s important to be involved with groups like Rotary.
Board member Michell Marinelli said, “I did really like his personality. We need someone to be out there in the community. We are a small community — we’re like a family here.”
Schinstock said Rentz spent every Wednesday in his district going to classrooms and visiting with students, administrators and teachers. He recounted one incident in which a community member posted a sharply negative comment about the district on Facebook. Rentz called the person and said, “Let me tell you the full story. And the guy realized he was wrong and took the post off.”
The contract approved by the board on Monday includes a $115,000 salary for running the biggest business in Payson. The district has nearly 300 employees and a budget of nearly $14 million. The contract provides 30 days of vacation annually, plus two weeks worth of personal time and sick time. The contract also provides for full benefits, a $5,000 car allowance, and $5,000 in moving expenses.
The contract also makes Rentz responsible for all public relations functions of the district — which will represent one of his first challenges. The district will have to go to the voters to seek approval of a budget override before the end of this year. If voters reject the override, the district will have to cut it’s already beleaguered budget by about $400,000 annually.
Rentz will also have to cope with the impending meltdown of the state’s school assessment system. The Legislature has made the AzMerit testing and assessment system optional, which will likely force major changes in the way schools are rated on the state assessment.
Other big problems include the high school’s low scores, dwindling enrollment, declining graduation rates, deteriorating facilities due to a lack of money for upgrades and maintenance, a lack of students willing to take advanced placement or dual-enrollment college classes, struggles maintaining arts and vocational classes and continued reliance on donations for many key extracurricular programs — including arts and sports programs. The district also faces problems maintaining its fleet of aging buses and the class size and student impacts of splitting up the 12 grades into four campuses — forcing students to change schools four times during their careers in the district.
Underwood said the district also faces challenges in the effort to boost student achievement by making sure the curriculum matches the state and national standards.
“We’ve talked about getting our curriculum in line. We’ve been so far behind in adopting the math and English curriculum, and so I think going forward his challenge is going to be how do you balance the budget to meet the needs of our students within our limited resources,” she said.