The empty file cabinets and mounds of paper sitting on top of a desk inside Blue Springs Superintendent Paul Kinder’s office indicate that it is the end of an era for the Blue Springs School District.
Kinder is retiring at the end of the month as leader of a school district that has the highest MAP test scores in the state and for several years received perfect Annual Performance Reports from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Only five districts in Missouri, including Blue Springs, have this distinction, he says. He served as the Blue Springs superintendent for the past 14 years and spearheaded facility improvements at all the district buildings with the passage of many bond issues.
While moving out of his office in order to begin his next phase in life, Kinder took time to talk with The Examiner to reflect on his career in education, as well as what is in store for the school district in the near future.
“I’m not as diplomatic as I used to be,” Kinder said on why he decided to retire this year. He added that whatever you do or say as superintendent reflects on the entire school district, and he wanted to get out while he still could. He said the district will be in good hands with Deputy Superintendent Jim Finley, his successor.
“Finley is ready.”
Finley was chosen to become the next superintendent by the Blue Springs Board of Education as part of the district’s successor plan two years ago, he said. “He’s maginificent and will continue to bring success to the district.”
Kinder said that he initially wanted to pursue law in his teenage years, but the high tuition costs of law school prevented him from going, despite working various jobs.
“My dad said I needed something to fall back on, like economics,” Kinder remembered. “I asked, ‘what about education?’”
His father, he said, discouraged him from going after a “thankless job.” But Kinder pursued education anyway, and that turned out to be where he would spend his entire career. A law school eventually called Kinder and told him he had been accepted. He still stayed in education.
After his early career as a social studies teacher and coach in Columbia, Misssouri, Kinder arrived in Blue Springs in 1984 to serve as the director of pupil/personnel services for the district.
“I was sold from the very beginning,” he said about Blue Springs. “The community is a great place to work and raise a family.”
The community also has high expectations for its students, he said. He said these expectations are a reason the district is viewed as an academic and activity powerhouse; notably this past school year with a record number of National Merit Scholars, an internationally recognized marching band and one high school having the most seniors graduating with at least a 3.5 grade point average in the district’s history. Plus a “great and outstanding staff,” he said.
Kinder left Blue Springs in 1992 and gained experience as superintendent in Aberdeen, South Dakota. He returned to Blue Springs in 1995 as deputy superintendent. During his time in Aberdeen, he learned what sets Blue Springs apart.
“Aberdeen was just content with students being from their town,” he said about student achievement in the two cities. “Blue Springs wants students to succeed. If the community did not demand high expectations, it would be difficult to motivate students for success.”
Another factor in the district’s high academic achievement is his staff being “very engaged in professional development.” Instead of sending teachers out to conferences all across the country, the district invites education experts to Blue Springs in order to provide hands-on training and to evaluate teachers in their own classrooms. He said Deputy Superintendent Annette Seago was very instrumental in this approach.
All the scholarly accomplishments that happen throughout the district culminate every May at high school graduations – and it is what Kinder said he will miss the most about being superintendent.
“If you could see what I see. The (smiling) faces on graduates and their families.”
It hasn’t always been wonderful in the district. In 2008 during the economic recession the district had to cut $20 million from its $150 million budget. Kinder considered this his most challenging time.
“We had three specific goals during that time. One of them included no staff layoffs.”
The district managed that despite the financial cutback, he said, which left many employees appreciative.
Also, what looms on the horizon could hinder the district from continuing to earn perfect assessment scores from DESE, Kinder said: The Missouri School Improvement Program, otherwise known as the “MSIP 5.”
Kinder says this tweaked scoring rubric used by the state to grade school district performance will penalize not just Blue Springs, but all districts within the state.
“No one is arguing over standards, but the rubric is very punitive.”
For instance, Missouri school districts will no longer be able to get credit for their number of high school graduates. Instead they will only get points for graduates who have a post-secondary education plan, such as attending a 2- to 4-year college, a technical school or job training program or joining the military.
“For us (Blue Springs), 15 to 18 percent of our graduates do not have a post high school plan,” Kinder said, “but for rural districts, half of their graduates work on the family farm immediately after high school.”
Attendance requirements have also been changed with the new MSIP 5 standards. Originally the goal was a 94 percent student attendance rate, but MSIP 5 has changed it to where 90 percent of a school’s student population have to attend 90 percent of the time. This new standard will be problematic for Blue Springs high schools that both have a growing student population, Kinder said. He added a third high school will be needed in the near future.
Not only those scoring changes will impact school districts statewide, but weighted bonuses in ACT test scores and district growth rates have been altered, too. The Missouri Association of School Administrators, which Kinder has been a member of for over 20 years, said it is “getting alarmed” by these new requirements.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but Dr. Michael Podgursky, the economics professor in Columbia who helped devise these (MSIP 5) standards, has ties to the man in St. Louis (Rex Sinquefield).”
Podgursky is on the board of directors of the Show-Me Institute, a think tank founded by Sinquefield.
Will Kinder somehow still be involved in education during his retirement? He said he first has to experience what retirement is like before he makes a decision. “I’ll probably know by Labor Day.”
As for current teachers and administrators, Kinder advises them to “stay the course.”
“No one can do it alone (working in education). It will be taxing with detractors, as in any other business. But keep fighting the good fight (for public education).”
Kinder also recently received a retirement gift of sorts. Sunny Vale Middle School is being renamed as Paul A. Kinder Middle School for “his commitment to public education and his positive impact on our district,” the district previously wrote.
“The board got me on that,” he said about having a school named after him. “I don’t like surprises, but it was pretty awesome.”