Brooklyn Center schools’ ‘miracle worker’ steps down

/ 10 April 2012 / jennifer

Maria Elena Baca, Star Tribune, April 10, 2012 –

Retiring Superintendent Keith Lester hopes to help keep improving education.

Keith Lester’s retirement as Brooklyn Center schools superintendent, tendered at Monday’s school board meeting, marks the end of an era for the district. But it’s not the end of the line for Lester.

The leader of one of the metro area’s poorest districts and its smallest is stepping down in part so he can focus on the work of improving education for students and families.

“I like what I’m doing,” Lester said on Tuesday. “A lot that is the change process, innovation, being creative, working in community schools, developing partnerships. Sometimes all the other stuff of the job kind of got in the way of that.”

He doesn’t have another job set up, but he said he’s spiffed up his home office and is looking forward to having time to ruminate on the ideas that get him “on fire.”

Lester, 64, arrived in Brooklyn Center in 2005, after 36 years as a music teacher and administrator in Mora and Ogilvie.

In Brooklyn Center under his watch, necessity has been the mother of innovation. In the face of serious budgetary problems, district officials have cut millions from the budget while still expanding academic and other programs to the point where 40 percent of the district’s students come from outside its boundaries.

The north metro district has been in statutory operating debt since 2001. Over the years, voters rejected eight consecutive appeals to increase the operating levy. Last year, facing expiration of its levy, voters finally OK’d a renewal.

“I see him as a miracle worker,” said longtime friend and colleague Dennis Carlson, superintendent of the neighboring Anoka-Hennepin School District. “He just would find money, find grant money, work with other school districts. He would try to maximize all the resources he could find from any possible place.”

There have been many challenges along the way. Two years ago, Brooklyn Center High School’s designation as one of the 32 lowest-performing schools in the state brought about big and painful changes in staffing and structure. Scores are on the upswing, and increased teacher coaching is a good thing, Lester said.

Brooklyn Center school board chairwoman Cheryl Jechorek said Lester’s vision in challenging times will be tough to replace.

“He’s unique,” she said. “We have a unique district. He’s been the perfect person in the perfect time for us. Now the question is, how do we find that next perfect person?”

Lester’s retirement is effective June 30, but he’s willing to help until the board finds his replacement.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409