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New Cloquet superintendent jumps in

New Cloquet Superintendent Michael Cary said he's happy to take over such a well-run school district in such a supportive community. Jana Peterson/

New Cloquet Superintendent Michael Cary has hit the ground running, shepherding in an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights regarding student equity and discipline at his first board meeting, then finding out unexpectedly that the district is in the hunt for a new varsity boys hockey coach.

While Cary has only been on the job technically since the beginning of July, he's been attending school board meetings since May and was meeting before he started with now-retired superintendent Ken Scarbrough.

Plus, he's not exactly a stranger to the area, as he was hired away from the Duluth School District, where he was director of curriculum and instruction. This is his first job as a superintendent.

Cary lives in Duluth with his wife, a son going into fourth grade and a daughter going into second grade in a Spanish immersion program. He wants to relocate to Cloquet, but when the time is right. He's researching studies regarding the best time for children to change schools.

But he's on the right track. The new superintendent was wearing purple when the Pine Journal sat down to interview him.

PJ: Why did you want to work in Cloquet?

MC: I was curriculum director in Duluth when I was approached and told there was an opening. I didn't know I was going to apply — it was an interesting opportunity. So I started asking people (who lived or worked in Cloquet) what they thought of the schools and the community. I kept getting kind of the same repetitive glowing response: The schools were great, that the community was highly supportive, that it was just a great place to live and work and go to school.

PJ: What do you think are the Cloquet's strengths so far?

MC: I shared some of the things I'd heard when we talked about why I was interested in the job. In addition to those things, I heard there's a very strong positive culture in the schools with staff — that they're very supportive of children and are willing to go the extra mile on behalf of kids.

Cloquet has done a great job of updating and modernizing their schools, and they've done an excellent job of maintaining small class sizes compared to what you see regionally. They've really done a good job of managing their finances well, so they can focus on small class sizes. They've also done a great job of integrating technology here in the schools.

Somehow, they've done all that while still managing to retain a strong fund balance and being financially responsible. From a superintendent's perspective, walking into a community where they've had a strong reputation of being financially responsible is an important thing.

PJ: Is there anything in particular that the district needs to tackle?

MC: I'd say that's probably premature to make assessment on that. I think anytime you're acclimating to running a large organization, the smartest thing you can do is be patient and take some time to learn the organization and not rush to judgement.

We obviously have a couple things that have been placed before us to work on, like the MDHR work that Ken (Scarbrough) laid the groundwork for. Part of that is the achievement and integration program — we'll be looking at a plan for that..

PJ: At your last job, you made the news for removing "Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the curriculum. Are you planning to do the same here?

MC: That's not my role here. My role here is I'm the superintendent. I'm not the director of curriculum. Each community is its own community, with its own needs. I would say in our context in Duluth and in my role there, that's the decision we needed to make.

PJ: The school district frequently shifts children between the elementary schools. Many people thought that wouldn't happen anymore after they moved the fifth-grade classes to the new middle school, yet it's still going on. Why?

MC: I've heard that occurs, but I haven't yet had time to sit down and have a conversation about that process or practice with the elementary school principals. In the future, I can come back and give you a more concrete answer.

PJ: Carlton County has many school districts. Cloquet already pairs and shares for some sports with Esko, Carlton and the Fond du Lac district. What are your thoughts on more collaboration with schools?

MC: I think in terms of collaboration between schools, you need to look at what you're trying to collaborate on and find a purpose and fit. Hopefully, our goal is to make sure we're always trying to provide the best education and opportunities for our children that we can. So if there are opportunities to collaborate or cooperate with other organizations or school districts to improve those options for kids, within reason, then you go for it.

First and foremost, I'm the superintendent for Cloquet. My first role to look at what's in the best interest of the children in Cloquet public schools. If an arrangement or an agreement isn't serving our children well, then maybe it doesn't make sense to be in that agreement.

PJ: What have you done since you've started three weeks ago to get up to speed?

MC: I've been holding Individual meetings with school board members to get to know them better and it helps to get some history and learn about some of our practices and procedures. I have been meeting one on one with all our principals and some of our other department and program-area leaders. I've also been setting up key training and other opportunities where I am able to gather important information that I need for the job.

PJ: What has impressed you the most since you started?

MC: Everybody I've met has just been wonderfully kind. I've also met a lot of people who are very passionate about this community; they kind of ooze it. You can see the pride they have for this community when they talk about it. That's a good thing. You need passionate caring people to make a place successful.

PJ: Is there anything else you'd like to say to the Pine Journal readers?

MC: I'm just excited to be here. Excited for opportunity to serve the community and be a part of the Cloquet community. One of the things I always say is: "You hire a superintendent to run the schools and the schools belong to the community."

These schools belong to the taxpayers of Cloquet, so my role is to work with our administration and our school board and within our community to make sure our schools are fulfilling the needs of the community and the desires of the community.