This is the perfect time for Jim Nygaard to be vying for superintendent of School District 2.
That’s what Nygaard told SD2’s board of trustees Tuesday night during their 90-minute interview with the second of five candidates for the district’s top job. Nygaard is superintendent of Cordova Public Schools in Cordova, Alaska.
He is actually more Montanan than Alaskan. Nygaard began his career in Colstrip in 1979 as a teacher. By 1998, he was the superintendent there and led the district until 2004 when he left to take over the Southeast Island School District in Alaska.
Over the years, he told trustees he considered applying for superintendent of SD2 when the job came open.
“A couple of times I even wrote out a letter of interest, only to discard it because I knew in my heart I wasn’t ready,” Nygaard said.
His time as a superintendent in Alaska, though, gave him the opportunity to explore what he was capable of. Alaska can be harsh, challenging and remote, he said.
Despite the challenges, he was able to build new schools, renovate old ones and work to gain energy savings for the district.
“Everything I learned in my earlier years in Colstrip I was able to apply,” he said.
Nygaard learned about bargaining and designing handbooks, developing curriculum, communication, and as the head of the state superintendents’ group, he mentored younger school leaders and advocated for schools at the state level.
With his own children grown and his parents growing older, Nygaard and his wife have talked about moving back to Montana. He knows now he’s ready for the challenge of leading SD2.
“I had proven to myself and to the districts I had worked for that I can re-establish myself. I do know what I’m doing,” he said.
He built “phenomenal facilities” with energy efficiency that people didn’t believe was possible, he said. And, despite the diverse student population in his Alaska district, his students did well.
“As an administrator, wherever I have been my students have never failed to meet AYP,” he said. Adequate Yearly Progress is the standard set by the federal government’s No Child Left Behind legislation.
“We lead the state in proficiency,” he said. “I want my students to be the best, I want my staff to be the best.”
Nygaard, in his 33rd year as an educator, said he has watched the Billings district closely for at least 25 of those years.
“I’ve been very comfortable with my work in Colstrip. I’m very comfortable with my work in Alaska. But, I’m ready for my next step, and that is the Billings superintendent job,” he said. “I feel I have a lot to offer.”
Nygaard talked about the importance of getting out into the district’s schools as the best way to understand administrators, teachers and students. Being a visible presence in the community also is crucial, he said.
In terms of curriculum, student performance and other decisions affecting students, Nygaard said analyzing all the available data is critical to making the best decisions.
Asked about his leadership style, Nygaard called himself up-front, open, honest, patient and available.
“In Alaska, people know me by name” and they know his telephone number, he said.
Eileen Johnson, Lockwood School District superintendent, worked under Nygaard in Colstrip in the 1990s and describes him as one of the most capable superintendents she’s worked with.
“He did a lot of good work,” she said. “He’s very keen on understanding what kids are all about.”
Nygaard was one of three finalists last month for the superintendent job in Lockwood. Johnson retires in June. The board voted 5-1 to hire Tobin Novasio from Elder Grove.
“It was a tough decision,” said Tim Sather, president of Lockwood’s school board. He was the lone vote for Nygaard. “I kind of made my decision early on. He looked good.”
Trustee Jason Hamrick voted for Novasio but said he really could have gone any direction with the three applicants.
“There was nothing bad about any of the three,” he said. “They all had strong ties to our area.”
In the end, he said, they simply settled on Novasio over the other two candidates.
Pete Hoepfner, president of the Cordova School Board in Alaska, didn’t understand Lockwood’s decision.
“I can’t say enough good things about the guy,” Hoepfner said. “He’s remarkable.”
Cordova, located on Prince William Sound, was ground zero for the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The community had been trying since 1989 to build a new elementary school but could never get enough community support to pass a bond to do so.
Nygaard joined the district and immediately began work on building support for a bond. When it finally came up to vote three years ago, it passed with 88 percent support, Nygaard said.
Hoepfner said under Nygaard’s leadership, the district has reduced its energy consumption every year for the five years he’s been with the district. At one point, the Fairbanks School District tried to recruit him away from Cordova.
Currently, he’s Alaska’s superintendent of the year.
“He’s the whole package,” Hoepfner said. “We wish he could stay.”
The biggest issue facing Nygaard is the size of School District 2. Cordova serves 400 students, SD2 has 16,000.
“It would be an adjustment,” Nygaard said.
But his experience in Alaska, where some school districts are the size of whole states, he believes has prepared him for the challenges SD2 faces.
“It gave me the confidence I need,” he said.
Johnson has no doubts that Nygaard could come to Billings and excel within the district. She sees him as a strong leader who has a knack for getting hard things done.
“I wholeheartedly support Jim for the job in District 2,” she said.