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Former BBE administrator offered Breckenridge superintendent slot; Lac qui Parle administrator was finalist

BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. - The Breckenridge School Board offered the district's top job to Warren Schmidt, a retired school administrator best known in this area for taking on the troubled Barnesville district as both superintendent and mediator in a parent lawsuit against board members.

Residents in both communities have drawn parallels between Barnesville in 2003 and present-day Breckenridge, where board members and interim Superintendent Greg East clashed often and where the board's repeated denial of a contract for East angered residents at occasionally raucous board meetings.

At the top of Breckenridge School Board Chairman Tom Rittenhouse's list of reasons to hire Schmidt: "He has worked with boards not operating efficiently before."

Last week, the board interviewed East and two other finalists - Lac qui Parle Valley interim Superintendent Ray Farwell and Ronald Bratlie, the retired former superintendent of Lake Park-Audubon. A snowstorm forced the board to postpone Schmidt's interview and deliberations until Friday.

A fifth finalist, Robert Duncan, a retired superintendent now at the helm of the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind in Faribault, withdrew his application to pursue a different job opportunity.

During Friday's deliberations in a high school health classroom, all board members pitched in for a list of East's strengths that search consultant Rosemary Schneiderhan of ADM Group compiled on a whiteboard: his success in passing a levy referendum last fall, his grasp of school finance, strong work ethic and more.

But when board members voted for their top candidates to narrow down the list, East faced familiar and relentless math. He received only three votes, just as in the 4-3 vote by which the board denied him a contract in March. His relationship with most board members has been strained since he leveled accusations of ethical and legal violations shortly after he took over the district last summer.

Schmidt boasted the only list of strengths that stretched to the bottom of the whiteboard. Board members agreed unanimously to offer him the job and selected Farwell as an alternate.

In his interview earlier on Friday, Schmidt, who landed his first superintendent job at age 26, cast himself as a no-nonsense administrator who doesn't shy away from unpopular moves but deftly brings people on board.

At Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, where he's part-time superintendent, he presided over major budget cuts and streamlined once-rambling School Board meetings to under an hour. (During the past year, Breckenridge School Board meetings have generally run longer than three hours.)

He said he brooks no school board meddling in day-to-day administrative work, asking members not to visit him at school. But he also touted his knack for working collaboratively: "I believe in the shared decision-making process. I believe trying to be the dictator doesn't work. They usually get rid of them."

Schmidt took over the Barnesville School District shortly after parents sued members of the deeply divided board over alleged open-meeting law violations. At the end of his semester-long stint, some credited him with restoring a measure of normalcy to the controversy-plagued district.

He didn't dwell on his Barnesville experience beyond labeling the situation he inherited a "fracas" and recalling four attorneys attended his first meeting with the board.

The School Board will start negotiating a contract for Schmidt next week. Members aim to approve a contract at the next regular meeting, May 13 at the high school.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529