GRANBY — Nancy Karas has been at East Grand School District most of her working career. She started as a summertime custodian during her junior and senior years at Middle Park High. She taught physical education and health at the elementary and high schools for five years, worked as the middle school counselor for eight years, coached volleyball for 15 years and served as East Grand Middle School principal for 15 years.
Now 53, Karas is retiring after finishing her fifth year as superintendent, a job that wasn’t without its challenges. She entered the position in the thick of the economic recession and faced budget cuts. She grappled with closing a school, layoffs and high turnover. But Karas also worked for positive improvements for the district, like summer training and continuing education for teachers and improved student test scores.
Her final week working at East Grand, Karas reflected on the past five years.
What did you enjoy most about your tenure as superintendent?
When I moved into the superintendency, the thing I think I enjoyed the most was it was a different set of challenges, although the challenges I took over in 2008, right when the bottom fell out of everything were different than I expected. But I am a global thinker and enjoy solving problems, generating new ideas and solutions. I also liked learning about the organization from a different point of view. You have your hands in everything, and you have to know a lot of stuff about a lot of things.
Does East Grand School District present any unique challenges?
With new teachers, we tend to be a training ground. So we put a lot of time and energy and a lot of money into training, but because our pay scales are lower and we don’t have a lot of opportunities for growth, we have a high turnover rate.
The other area we’ve struggled with is keeping our administrative team together. It’s the same thing – we have principals going to Wyoming getting a $15,000 or $20,000 raise to do the same job. We know is longevity and consistency create results, so when you’re in this constant pattern of change, it makes the job tougher. But I will say those who have stayed here are some of the best people you’ll ever work with.
Describe the last five years, what do you think the public didn’t understand about your work as superintendent?
I started in a unique situation. When I came in, every principal in the district was coming in new with me. I feel that as a team we pulled together during the first year, we really gelled and started moving the district forward. Then, by December of that first year, the state hit us with a rescission of about $650,000. From there, it got really rough. It was two-sided. On the student academic side, we were writing grants and bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants that we used to train and build teacher leaders. It was fun to watch our teachers grow and understand what it took to be a quality educator. And we watched our test scores go up.
But on the other side, we were in this conflict with the community and the state. We had to try to educate the public on school finance. We had to lay off 42 people. That was very difficult. We made tough decisions and I know the community struggled. School finance is a very unique beast. If we had not done what we had done, we’d already be broke.
Explain the decision to close Grand Lake Elementary.
The decision was based on low enrollment and lack of district funding. This district, being small, has a lot of schools. The overhead costs to run so many schools were excessive. Anyone who understands what it takes to run heat, lights, water, trash, custodial, secretarial, food service, library – there just weren’t enough kids in the district to support that many schools.
What are some of the highlights from the last five years?
I’m most proud of the energy we put into developing teacher leaders through our summer institute. It’s been fun to watch our teachers grow. Some have been selected to serve on state curriculum committees. I hate losing young teachers, but they’re not leaving us to teach, they’re leaving us to lead. I think that speaks volumes about what we’re doing here.
Your retirement starts the first week of July. Have you made any interesting plans?
My husband and I bought a fifth-wheel RV. We’re going to travel and see the country, then we’ll be home this winter. We do want to spend a winter in Grand County without all the pressures of the job so we can ski and snowshoe. I’m also hoping to do some volunteer work.