Chancellor reflects on tenure as Purdy superintendent
Super sees new pride, better operating campus as his legacy
On June 17, Steven Chancellor attended his last school board meeting as superintendent in Purdy.
Having served since the 2012-2013 school year, Chancellor led the district through some major changes, including two major construction projects.
“First-time superintendents average two or three years on the job, especially in small districts,” Chancellor said. “If you watch the job sites, it’s the same schools where the openings occur. I don’t think I came here with a plan. I know I didn’t come with a timeline. I feel the time is right [to leave]. Purdy is in a good spot and ready for new stuff.”
Chancellor will become the new superintendent in Centralia.
Looking back at his time in Purdy, Chancellor admitted there were things that aren’t taught in superintendent school, left for new hires to discover.
“None of the things that matter were things I learned in school — how to form relationships with people, how to handle the onslaught of questions, what do you do when you don’t know,” he said. “There were personnel and legal things that come up. They call it ‘textbook’ for a reason, because what they teach you fits nicely in a good. You get general ideas how to approach things. There’s no textbook for culture problems, or adults doing bad things to kids.”
Chancellor recalled growing up in a school district half the size of Purdy, so he was familiar with the general environment and the “unwritten rules” of small town life. What he had to do upon arrival was learn about Purdy.
“You have to relearn those things in any town,” Chancellor said. “You don’t know the behind-the-scenes things, how to avoid stepping on landmines. That happens so much when you don’t know the landscape or the power structures. That’s something every superintendent has to learn on the fly.”
Chancellor will be remembered especially for the building projects. He noted some build their resumés on such projects, while he sees them more as an added bonus.
“We went through the strategic planning process and came up with the two major projects,” he said. “I had a gut feeling about the storm shelter [the second project]. The front of the building [where Chancellor directed rebuilding the entrance to the gym] presented itself. In my eyes, everything comes down to money. We don’t sell widgets, so we have no way to increase revenue. Either you raise taxes — which is not a legitimate option — or you increase enrollment.
“The front of the building is all about curb appeal. You see a nice school, you can picture your kids going here. I heard tons of stories about people ‘having a feeling’ about coming into Purdy. That’s what the project was designed to do. Picture yourself here. When gets get off the bus, do they feel they are here to do a job and enjoy being here? You don’t want to see a chewed up parking lot, rusty doors and then hear, ‘We expect the best of you.’ It’s part of the psychology of learning.”
One of the side products of the first construction project involved moving the concession stand by expanding the school cafeteria, replacing the undersized bathrooms that were always overcrowded at athletic events, and putting new bathrooms in space that had been used for modular classrooms outdoors.
“It’s sometimes the simple things that make the biggest difference,” Chancellor said. “It’s really improved the experience of coming to Purdy. You want people to walk in and not worry about the restrooms or worry about congested halls.
“Just from an experience standpoint, a simple change cascaded into so many positive things for us. We were doing lunch in shifts, from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., because there wasn’t enough space. Now we can do lunch from 9 a.m. to noon in one shift. From an efficiency standpoint in how we manage kids’ time, it’s made a big difference. It’s hard to imagine how we functioned before that.”
Chancellor recalled that when he researched coming to Purdy, he found information about the school district’s recycling center online, “a whole lot of stuff about dancing” from the 1988 lawsuit in federal court, and information about tornadoes, especially from the 2003 tornado in Pierce City.
“I knew this area was a very active location for severe weather,” he said. “Even where I live, you can see fenceposts bent over. We were doing a storm shelter in Belton [Chancellor’s previous school district]. I knew this was an attractive site for that kind of project, at least for SEMA [the State Emergency Management Agency]. When you look at the community, there’s not a safe place for you to go. I also learned in hunting for houses that there’s not a lot of basements here.
“Adding the performing arts center [as part of the storm shelter] came out of the strategic plan. We’re really active here in the performing arts. What we had, the word ‘inadequate’ doesn’t come close.”
Chancellor said he had surprises in his experience living in the community.
“One of the things that made me take a step backward was a feeling people had that they didn’t have access to good things, or opportunity, due to their location,” he said. “I would hear, ‘That sounds good, but I’m from Purdy.’ That stuck with me. We worked through that. You hear a different emphasis now: ‘I AM from Purdy.’ I think that’s a huge transformation. You see it in kids, and from time to time in the city council meetings. It’s OK to think small town, but you can’t think small minded. I think we pushed through that barrier.”
Chancellor noted that his sons, coming to the district when they were small, say they are from Purdy, and will always say that because of their formative experience. He finds that “a neat transformation.”
Many people influenced Chancellor during his time in Purdy. He first pointed to former board chairman Randy Henderson.
“Randy was there when I needed him to be. We worked will together, and could anticipate what each other were thinking. He helped guide me through the process.”
Chancellor spoke highly of Todd Schallert, the current board president, finding they agree on the important issues and had a great comfort level between them.
“There’s been a ton of community people who have helped me,” he said. “I used to go drink coffee at the old restaurant by the grocery store. Those who were there knew I was not a regular. To this day, I can see any of the core group from there, and they will stop and talk to me. They taught me a lot about those inner workings, how information flows. I was trying to establish myself as an approachable person, someone open and willing to listen, not coming in with a checklist. I think they expected a checklist person. They forced me to get skillful at relationship building.”
He also credited Mindi Gates, who will succeed him as superintendent, for her aid. Chancellor recalled pitching the idea of an associate superintendent as someone who could address instructional issues, freeing him for other focuses.
“I said if we didn’t find the right person, we shouldn’t hire anyone,” he said. “We struck gold.”
Chancellor said he has tried to include Gates in as many activities as he could. It was not that he saw her as his successor.
“Someone did that for me in Belton,” he said. “They drug me along so I could be exposed. That was huge. Someone took the time to help me. I was paying it forward. Hopefully down the line Mindi will be able to do it for someone else.”
Some of the unfinished business Chancellor has tried to address in his final months has been publicity about the community. He recognized from his own experience the limited amount of information available. By creating the position of public relations coordinator in Susan Funkhouser, he began putting out more news about district accomplishments. A current effort now taking shape is a new website emphasizing “Why come to Purdy?” This is taking form through the help of 2001 graduate Brandon Bellegarde, who offered to use his company’s resources in South Carolina to help the district as a way to give back.
“I’ve struggled with establishing an educational foundation,” Chancellor said. “That will probably wrap up in the fall. This is an incredibly generous community. All the time people ask, ‘How can I help?’ I wanted to give them some kind of benefit for doing so. A foundation can give a taxable or charitable benefit. This is now we can support you right back. It’s a big boulder to move. We’ve got the ball rolling now. We have the tax designation. Now we’re waiting for the paperwork and bylaws. Once we establish a board of directors, then we’ll be ready to go.
“I really wanted to start a Purdy School District Hall of Fame. We’ve got an athletic hall of fame. We forget people like Jack Henry and Glen Garrett, who just bled Purdy. The list is so long of people with Purdy roots. That’s still out there. Someone can take off running with it. It’s a way to honor our history.”
Leaving Purdy, Chancellor conceded he would miss the people, and the experience of going into the grocery store and striking up a conversation with a random student and parent in the aisle.
“Per student, I bet I get more high fives and hugs than any superintendent,” he said. “It’s being around good people and teachers. In the beginning, they were individually good and had a sense of what to do, but they wanted some kind of guidance, how to take this from a job to a profession, how to hone a craft. The culture we have now is what I’m most proud of.
“I will miss walking the halls, seniors coming up to make jobs, taking pictures with the kindergarten students each year, parents crying on the first day. It’s the little things. That’s what makes me happy, that’s what I will miss the most.”