Aberdeen School District picks superintendent

After a little more than five months of searching for a new superintendent, Aberdeen School District has decided to hire Jeffrey D. Thake as the next superintendent.

Jennifer Durney, Aberdeen School Board president, said on Friday, March 11, via Zoom, that the decision to hire Thake over Nikki L. Grubbs was a challenge.

“It was a really tough decision,” she said. “It was a late night last night.”

After two full days of showing off the district to the two superintendent finalists, Grubbs — on Tuesday, March 8, and Thake — on Thursday, March 10 — and then having the candidates meet administrators, staff and students, each candidate spoke about their strengths and their experiences to interested stakeholders at a public hearing inside Aberdeen High School’s Auditorium.

Then, each day ended with the board interviewing each candidate for the superintendent position. The school board’s meeting continued late into Thursday night so they could talk among themselves in order to decide on whom to hire.

Without a decision on Thursday night, the board reconvened at 10 a.m., on Friday morning, via Zoom, to continue talking about whom to pick.

Once the board left its executive session, which lasted until about 10:25 a.m., Durney said it was great to meet and to see the strengths of Thake and Grubbs, who were in the district this week to discuss what made each of them the right fit.

“They are both wonderful leaders,” Durney said.

The decision to hire Thake, which was made in a roll call vote at about 10:30 a.m., Friday, was a unanimous one.

Jeremy Wright, one of the school board members, loudly made his vote for Thake known.

“It’s an enthusiastic yes!” he said.

Jessica Jurasin, one of the school board members, said it was a big decision for the board, but how Thake comes to the school district’s team with “genuine character.”

“He puts students first,” she said.

Jurasin said Thake believes in fostering schools where every student feels they belong.

On Thursday night, Thake talked about how “personalized learning” is important, as well as what it means to him.

“It’s incorporating student pace, place, voice, and choice into learning,” he said. “And really trying to enhance and augment what our students’ strengths and interests truly are,” he said.

Thake said he was going to look very strongly at how the district enhances personalized learning and how the district brings innovation and public education into Aberdeen, at the highest level possible, for other districts to notice and to want to replicate.

Thake, whose last superintendent position was with the Williston Basin School District 7, in Williston, North Dakota, comes to Aberdeen with some potential controversy. Thake resigned from his post in North Dakota.

The Daily World asked Thake on Thursday to explain what specifically led to his resignation from the district. The district went through a merger between Williams County Public School District 8 and Williston Public School District 1 to become Williston Basin School District 7 in December 2020, according to a KX News report, a CBS affiliate in Bismarck, North Dakota.

While Thake didn’t say specifically what happened, he did provide some detail.

“There’s certain things I can and cannot say about that position,” he said. “There was a separation (and) non-disparagement agreement between myself and the school board. The biggest thing that happened was we had a change in the majority of the newly merged school district.”

Thake then said how when there’s a change, the superintendent has to be a good fit with the school board.

“It has to be a good fit for both parties,” he said. “In this particular instance, we thought the best alternative would be to incorporate a separation agreement between myself and (the district.) I wish Williston Basin District 7 nothing but the best.”

Thake also said the current board president for that district wished him nothing but the best a couple days before Thursday’s public hearing in Aberdeen.

“That’s kind of where we are with that,” he said. “And, when two school districts merge, sometimes you have a school board that would just prefer to pick their own superintendent.”

Thake’s resignation from Williston did not surprise the school board.

“Dr. Thake disclosed his prior relationship with the Williston School District (and separation) to the board and to our consultant when he applied for the position of superintendent at our district,” Durney wrote in an email to The Daily World on Wednesday, March 9. “Upon further review online and various articles, interviews, etc… we agreed as a board to move him forward to the interview stage of the process.”

Durney said Thake’s leadership qualities seem “closely aligned” with the goals of the district, as well as the input from staff and community on the qualities and characteristics they would like to see in their next superintendent.

Durney said Friday morning in an email to The Daily World that the board is grateful to all who applied for the superintendent position.

On Tuesday, Durney said there were 18 candidates who sent in applications. She said she thought Thake, who’s originally from Illinois, was the candidate who came the farthest in hopes of joining the district.

Durney is happy with the board’s “enthusiastic” choice. She’s also glad that there was so much public interest in who would take over as superintendent in the next few months.

“I’m very happy about the depth and scope of the process and the participation we had from stakeholders,” she said. “The board took that feedback very much to heart. We reviewed all of it.”

Along with the board’s interviews with the finalist candidates, they reviewed a lengthy packet prepared by consulting firm McPherson and Jacobson LLC. The packet included public feedback about the positive and negative attributes for the districts, what they wanted in a superintendent, as well as the positives and negatives about the community from a public discussion with stakeholders on Dec. 6, 2021. The board, in addition to its own meetings about the candidates, also reviewed the public input from the public hearings with the finalists.

Current Aberdeen superintendent, Alicia Henderson, announced to the school board in a board meeting on Aug. 17, 2021, that the 2021-22 school year would be her last as the district’s leader, according to Dee Anne Shaw, executive assistant to the superintendent and communications manager for Aberdeen School District.

Then on Oct. 5, 2021, McPherson and Jacobson LLC., responded to a district request for proposal in a letter to ASD’s board of directors.

“The enclosed proposal describes the professional services McPherson and Jacobson LLC., will provide Aberdeen School District in ensuring your superintendent search secures quality leadership for the district,” the firm’s letter states.

Durney, who seemed happy that the search is over and is ready to look forward to working with Thake, said there’s still a lot of work to do with Henderson before her time as superintendent is over, but she sounded positive it will be time well spent.

“We are looking forward to a strong finish and a smooth transition,” she said.